What is a Wrongful Conviction?

Criminal trials are not perfect. All aspects of the criminal justice system are subject to the experiences, judgments, and abilities of individuals who all have specific agendas. As a consequence, wrongful conditions are a possibility. In the vast majority of cases, a wrongful conviction is discovered after some time has elapsed from the trial and sentencing of a defendant. Indeed, oftentimes a considerable amount of time passes before a wrongful conviction is identified.

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Basic Definition of a Wrongful Conviction

In essential terms, a wrongful conviction occurs when an innocent individual is convicted of a crime. There are also situations in which a person who technically is not innocent of a crime but nonetheless has been wrongfully convicted. This type of situation occurs when a case is not properly adjudicated in the criminal justice system because of some sort of misconduct by someone involved in that process.

Wrongful convictions occur in the U.S. criminal justice system. Four situations most commonly underpin wrongful convictions in the United States:

  • mistake and negligence
  • police misconduct
  • prosecutorial misconduct
  • judicial misconduct

Mistake and Negligence

As mentioned at the start of this article, the criminal justice system is a complicated system with people of different backgrounds, experiences, and abilities operating in all parts of it. Humans are fallible; they make mistakes. Consequently, there are wrongful convictions that ultimately are the result of human error or negligence.

Police Misconduct

The highly regarded Cato Institute has been closely monitoring allegations of police misconduct in the United States. The Institute has been undertaking this thorough effort to abolish the legal protection of qualified immunity enjoyed by law enforcement officials in the U.S. Qualified immunity gives law enforcement officials a considerable degree of protection when they engage in some type of misconduct.

Police misconduct is a primary reason why wrongful convictions occur on the federal, state, and local levels of the criminal justice system. Misconduct of this nature includes everything from fabricating evidence to presenting perjured testimony in court.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Another underlying cause of wrongful convictions in the United States is prosecutorial misconduct. Examples of prosecutorial misconduct that results in wrongful convictions include withholding exculpatory evidence and presenting false information to the court during the prosecution of a criminal case.

Judicial Misconduct

Finally, in some more isolated cases, wrongful convictions occur as a result of judicial misconduct. Demonstrating that judicial misconduct resulted in a wrongful conviction is challenging because U.S. judges have a considerable degree of discretion in criminal trials. Abuse of that discretion is difficult to demonstrate. Examples of judicial misconduct that results in wrongful convictions include a demonstrable racial or other sort of bias and inappropriately favoring the prosecution in a criminal case.

Wrongful convictions sometimes are identified when a criminal case is appealed to a higher court following sentencing. More often a wrongful conviction is addressed at a later point in time in what is known as a habeas corpus case, a special legal action contending that a person is wrongly imprisoned.