How does someone get convicted of a crime they did not commit?

Forensic evidence is not always reliable (Photo credit Sandiaman @Flickr).
Forensic evidence is not always reliable (Photo credit Sandiaman @Flickr).

There is no one single cause contributing to wrongful convictions. The reality is that there are many factors in convicting someone of a crime they did not commit.

The Innocence network is a worldwide network with 68 projects, where students work together with lawyers to review cases where an individual claims to have been wrongfully convicted. The first one was set up in 1992 in New York by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The majority of these are located in the U.S. In 2009 the Irish Innocence Project was founded and works with law and journalism students under the supervision of pro-bono lawyers .

Eyewitness identifications is a major contributor to wrongful convictions. Out of The Innocence Project’s first 225 exonerations of wrongfully convicted people in the United States, 77 per cent were the result of mistaken eyewitness identifications. It is still the cause of 70 per cent of the wrongful convictions brought to the Innocence Project’s attention.

Ronald Cotton was wrongfully convicted of rape and burglary, a conviction mainly based on the eyewitness misidentifcation from victim Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. He spent 10 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Since, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino are friends and advocate reforms for eyewitness identifications. They are both interviewed in the video below.

The Innocence Project lists their experiences with eyewitness misidentification from cases they’ve worked on.

  • A witness made an identification in a “show-up” procedure (where witnesses are shown only the suspect at the scene of the crime or in another incriminating context) from the back of a police car hundreds of feet away from the suspect in a poorly lit parking lot in the middle of the night.
  • A witness in a rape case was shown a photo array where only the photo of the person that the police suspected was marked with an “R”, while the rest were unmarked
  • Witnesses substantially changed their description of a perpetrator (including key information such as height, weight and presence of facial hair) after they learned more about a particular suspect.
  • Witnesses only made an identification after multiple photo arrays or lineups — and then made hesitant identifications (saying they “thought” the person “might be” the perpetrator, for example) – but at trial the jury was told the witnesses did not waver in identifying the suspect.
There are many contributing factors to false confessions during interrogations . (Photo Credit Eelco @Flickr).
There are many contributing factors to false confessions during interrogations . (Photo Credit Eelco @Flickr).

Many may ask why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit? False confessions are more common than people think. During interrogations, the suspect may be presented with false evidence that makes them believe once their legal representation arrives, it will be straightened out. These interrogations can be hugely intimidating.

The Innocence Project lists contributing factors to false confessions.

  • duress
  • coercion
  • intoxication
  • diminished capacity
  • mental impairment
  • ignorance of the law
  • fear of violence
  • the actual infliction of harm
  • the threat of a harsh sentence
  • misunderstanding the situation.
Forensic evidence is not always reliable (Photo credit Sandiaman @Flickr).
Forensic evidence is not always reliable (Photo credit Sandiaman @Flickr).

Dr Itiel Dror, a senior cognitive neuroscience researcher with University College London, recently gave a lecture in Trinity College, Dublin on ‘the use and abuse of science in the court’. According to Dr Dror, sometimes mistakes are made as a result of forensic examiners being influenced by outside sources. Information related to a case can create a bias where the forensic examiner looks to match the evidence with the information they’ve received. As a result, they don’t look at the evidence impartially. It is also easy for them to get caught up in feeling they’re ‘helping’ the prosecution, which leads to objective evidence.

Dr Dror has researched fingerprint matching and how information regarding cases influences the matches. In several studies conducted by Dr Dror and colleagues, they’ve tested forensic examiner’s fingerprint matches by having different forensic examiners look at the same set of fingerprints multiple times. The results are that, not only, do different forensic examiners find different things, but the results vary despite the fact that they’re reviewing the same set of fingerprints over and over again.

Dr Dror also provides us with real life examples which may contribute to bias among forensic examiners. A report given to a forensic examiner by the detective in the U.S. entailed information about the case, but more importantly, stated “The above lists that the suspect is the person who pulled the trigger, make every effort to place him in the truck, only one witness riding the truck was too drunk to identify and make an identification, it’s all up to you to identify this black guy who shot the white guy”. Undoubtedly this creates a bias when the fingerprint expert is examining the evidence.

All of the factors above contribute to wrongful convictions at large. However, every case is different and there is still more research out there to be read as well as to be done. The important aspect is for the public to see wrongful convictions as a human rights issue, and to support the advocates in their important work of informing the public as well as professionals of the facts. To read more about the common causes of wrongful convictions, please visit The Innocence Project.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Irish Innocence Project, please visit their website, or follow them on Facebook , Twitter or Instagram.