Where There’s Smoke: Can We Predict Wrongful Convictions?

in Criminal Defense, on

If you are arrested for a violent crime in North Carolina that you did not commit, what are the chances you will be convicted anyway? A new study funded by the federal government and conducted by university researchers has identified 10 factors that wrongful convictions have in common. The researchers hope that the results will influence policy and procedure at the local, state and national levels.

The study is an analysis of 460 cases that resulted in either erroneous convictions or “near misses.” A near miss case was one that ended in acquittal or dismissal of charges. The data covered the years 1980 to 2012. The objective of the study was to identify characteristics that wrongful convictions did not share with other types of cases.

Among the factors were a few that will be familiar to North Carolina defense attorneys. The first was the death penalty culture in the state where the conviction occurred; the more executions, the more likely an erroneous conviction. While North Carolina has not executed any prisoners for a number of years, the death penalty debate continues in the General Assembly.

The strength of the prosecution’s case and the strength of the defendant’s case were two more factors. According to the lead researcher, prosecutors with weak cases tend to be particularly zealous in their pursuit of a conviction. The researcher explained that the trend showed that prosecutors would develop “tunnel vision” rather than consider alternative theories of the crime. The implication with the finding that a weaker defense case can lead to a wrongful conviction is that juries or the justice system in general does not follow the “innocent until proven guilty” mandate.

Withholding of evidence by the prosecution is another factor all too familiar to North Carolina defense attorneys. As the State Bureau of Investigation scandal proved, it does happen that prosecutors do not share all evidence in a case with the defendant, even if doing so is a clear violation of the law. The SBI inquiry also backed up another finding of the study: Forensic evidence is not always accurate.

We’ll finish this up in our next post.

Source: The BLT, “Study Reveals 10 Factors Common in Wrongful Convictions,” Mounira Al Hmoud, March 12, 2013