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Wrongful conviction: What are the most common causes?

Only two decades ago, the view that the criminal justice system works well, and that wrongful convictions are uncommon, was much more plausible than it is today.

Now, of course, DNA evidence has changed the game, resulting in numerous exonerations. Troubling police shootings, often of unarmed minority men, and an emerging awareness of the problem of mass incarceration have added to the growing concerns.

Obviously we can't take on the entire gamut of those issues in one blog post. But let's ask this question: What are the most common causes of wrongful convictions?

Prosecutorial misconduct

In our previous post, we noted how misconduct by prosecutors or police can lead to a wrongful conviction. We discussed a Wisconsin case in which a federal judge threw out convictions for homicide and sexual assault against a man who was only 16 when he was subjected to repeated interrogation that produced what turned out to be a false confession.

A Netflix documentary called Making a Murderer called attention to the case. It was a big win for the post-conviction relief process.

Misconduct by prosecutors can also take the form of refusing to disclose key information to the defense.

Coerced confessions

A coerced confession was also at issue in another recent case in which the courts granted post-conviction relief to someone who was wrongfully convicted. This case was out of Missouri, and like the Wisconsin case featured on Making a Murderer on Netflix, it attracted attention from documentary film makers. In the Missouri case, the documentary about a wrongful conviction aired on an MTV show called Unlocking the Truth.

In the Missouri case, police received a tip about an unsolved murder and interrogated a suspect for hours on end. Finally they extracted a confession that also implicated someone else. The man who confessed also testified at the trial of the person he implicated.

The man who was implicated by the false confession was sentenced to a 40-year prison term. But then the man who gave the false confession recanted his testimony, contending that police and prosecutors had pressured him to give it. The wrongly convicted man was finally exonerated and freed in 2013 - after nearly a decade behind bars.

The man who later recanted his confession was also convicted of murder. He is still in prison, despite the fact that two important witnesses against him at trial have acknowledged lying.

Unlocking the Truth aims to keep calling attention to cases like these. There are also private attorneys and organizations such as the Innocence Project that work to free wrongfully convicted people.

Ineffective assistance of counsel

Misconduct by police or prosecutors and recanted testimony by witnesses aren't the only reasons convictions can get overturned.

Another major reason is ineffective assistance of counsel. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is supposed to protect the right to effective counsel in criminal cases.

Far too often, without an effective defense attorney, a suspect is often able to properly challenge problematic investigative tactics by law enforcement. In many cases, those tactics tend to focus obsessively on building a case against someone, rather than genuinely trying to find out what happened.

Challenging a wrongful conviction

If you or someone close to you has been wrongfully convicted, you have legal rights to pursue post-conviction relief. The cases we've touched on this post are examples of how success is possible when challenging a conviction that never should have happened.

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