A new study estimates that 10,000 people per year may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes in the United States alone. Among the leading reasons for wrongful convictions are perjury, official misconduct, fabricated or faulty forensic evidence, misidentification, and false or forced confessions. In the last 25 years, over 1,200 convictions have been overturned in the United States – and over 130 of these cases involved inmates serving their time on death row. Research points to hundreds of innocent people that have been unjustly executed in the United States.
Over half of all wrongful convictions are the result of inaccurate eyewitness testimony, with just over one-third of these cases relying solely on eyewitness testimony to secure a conviction. Our thoughts are highly susceptible to an uncontrollable process referred to as imagination inflation, which involves distorting memories of an event, simply due to the power of suggestion. Imagination inflation was exceedingly evident in the wrongful conviction case of Ryan Ferguson. Ryan Ferguson was released after serving almost ten years for a 2001 murder and robbery that he did not commit. Ferguson was convicted on erroneous eyewitness testimony and a coerced confession by his alleged accomplice. Without a single piece of physical evidence linking Ferguson to the crimes, he was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Ferguson’s family championed for his release and acquittal, exhausting their life-savings and retirement on his defense – and 1.5 million dollars in legal fees were donated pro bono by his current defense team. Ferguson’s case has been, and continues to be widely covered by the media, and is an example of the impact that social support, financial resources and media exposure can have in wrongful conviction cases.
The Central Park Jogger Case involved five Black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of attacking and raping a White woman in 1989. Each of the teens were harshly interrogated and gave incriminating, yet extremely inconsistent statements without any parents or legal guardians present. None of the accused admitted to actually raping the victim, the only forensic evidence linking the boys to the crime was later proven faulty, and the defendants lacked sufficient legal representation. All of the convictions were vacated in 2002, when the actual perpetrator confessed to the crime, as well as to the murder of a pregnant woman just weeks after the five teens were arrested.
These cases highlight the importance of acknowledging the invalidity of eyewitness testimony and impact of official misconduct in determining the outcome of a trial, as well as the importance of the tenacity of the innocent person’s supporters. Thankfully, the aforementioned cases had positive outcomes, but what about wrongly convicted prisoners who may lack the social, financial, and legal support often required to fight for justice? Race, inadequacy of counsel, stereotyping, and lack of access to adequate resources are all key factors in wrongful convictions, resulting in Blacks and Hispanics being overrepresented among those wrongfully convicted. Once wrongfully convicted, Blacks are considerably less likely to be exonerated as compared to their White counterparts.
In response to the stark reality of injustices in capital cases, moratoriums on executions are being considered and implemented in some states. For more information or to contribute to the work being done to exonerate those wrongfully convicted, the Innocence Project has a wealth of information on past and present cases, as well as information on what is being done to reform our criminal justice system.