How Common Is Wrongful Conviction, Really?With the exoneration of Adnan Syed making headlines, we are forced to contemplate how our judicial system could allow for an innocent man to be convicted of murder. We would like to think that everyone who is sentenced to years in prison is there because they deserve to be there for their wrongful and illegal actions. Unfortunately, this is not the first time something like this has happened, as there have been hundreds of similar exonerations just in the past decade.

Perhaps we can rationalize that before DNA testing was available, wrongful convictions could be expected from time to time, but even in modern times, with all of our technology and experienced police officers and detailed evidence gathering techniques, we still put innocent people in jail. Adnan Syed is just the most recent example of a longstanding flaw in our legal system, and it shows just how important it is that you have a dedicated, educated, and proficient attorney on your side if you are ever convicted of a crime that you did not commit.

The exoneration of Adnan Syed

Over two decades ago in 1999, Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. While his conviction was made on the basis of witness testimony and cell phone records, as well as his own guilty plea, little to no physical evidence had placed him as the murderer. Just in the past year, new DNA testing was done on Syed’s clothing from 1999. The results exonerated Syed as they undermined the validity of the conviction.

Just this month, Syed was freed from prison after 23 years. According to The Baltimore Sun,

If Syed’s innocence is certified, he will be eligible for significant financial benefits from the state for being wrongfully incarcerated for 23 years. Under the Walter Lomax Act, Syed would receive roughly $2.2 million for the years he served in prison — compensation determined by a formula using Maryland’s median household income and the specific number of days Syed was incarcerated.

How often do wrongful convictions happen?

The Innocence Project is an independent nonprofit organization that “works to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone.” One of the resources they use, The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), is a public database that has records of all exonerations in the nation since 1989. Up and through 2021, there have been 3,077 exonerations in the United States. With the increase of awareness and better technology and procedures, the number of exonerations have increased over the decades. This obviously does not include the number of innocent people who may have been convicted and never exonerated.

The Georgia branch of the Innocence Project offers this startling statistic when it comes to how common wrongful convictions in the US are: “Studies estimate that between 4-6% of people incarcerated in US prisons are actually innocent.” To put it more clearly, that means about one in five criminal cases result in a wrongful conviction.

The question then remains: how do so many wrongful convictions happen, especially in a country such as ours where we hold our justice system so high up?

How do wrongful convictions happen?

We have relied on our justice system for hundreds of years. It makes sense that in the early stages, it might not have been perfect, but while there have been many changes and improvements to it over the years, we still have far too many people being wrongfully convicted every year. Why is that? There are several factors that play into a wrongful conviction, which includes:

  • Eyewitness misidentification. As one of the most common causes for wrongful convictions (In the US, 28% of all exonerations involve mistaken eyewitness identification), eyewitness accounts are some of the most persuasive pieces of evidence. Human memory cannot be relied on, especially in instances of high pressure, fear, and stress. A person’s memory of an attacker or alleged criminal can also be influenced by police questioning, line-ups, and photo-arrays. This seems to be particularly true to people of a different race than the eye-witness. In fact, even before Adnan Syed’s wrongful conviction, another man in Maryland was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1984. He was sentenced to death, but was exonerated eight years after his conviction due to DNA evidence proving his innocence. At his initial trial, five eyewitnesses had testified that he was the one they’d seen the victim with prior to her disappearance.
  • False confessions. False confessions have been a factor in 12% of false convictions across the nation. While we may be asking ourselves why anyone would confess to a crime they did not commit, there are various reasons why these happen. A great deal of them are due to pressure from the police detectives conducting interrogations. They can claim to have evidence they don’t have, threaten the suspect that things will go worse if they don’t confess, or promise that the process will be easier and better if they simply confess. Interrogations can last many hours across several days, and can be extremely emotionally stressful. While it may be important to the authorities that they catch their criminal, such tactics can lead to an innocent person landing in prison or worse.
  • Police and prosecutorial misconduct. According to the University of Colorado, “official misconduct by police officers, prosecutors, or other government officials has been present in 54% of wrongful convictions across the nation.” Police misconduct can happen at the scene of the crime with the mishandling of evidence, or later at the police station during the interrogation where they might use suggestion, coercion, and other improper interrogation techniques on the suspect. It has also been shown that police may fabricate evidence. In the courtroom, prosecutors could wrongfully choose to withhold exculpatory evidence. This is why it is important to have a good criminal defense attorney.
  • Flawed forensic evidence. Just like in any field, mistakes can be made, and forensic science is no exception. Not only that, but over the years, forensic science has been shown to be not as put under as much rigorous testing that is normally required of scientific theory. That’s why in more recent years, such things as bite marks and microscopic hair comparison have been declared as inaccurate testing for identification measures.
  • Perjured testimony. This has been seen in many cases of wrongful conviction, and is usually due to a fellow inmate giving false testimony against the suspect. They are generally promised such benefits as a “favorable plea bargain, dismissal of their own charges, special privileges in jail, or even money by offering damning evidence against a fellow inmate.”

There are hundreds of stories of wrongful convictions that occurred because of these unfair and sometimes immoral corruptions of the justice system. Of course, we’re not saying that all police are trying to coerce and threaten suspects or that prosecutors are out to undermine the defendant’s case. In fact, we’d say that most experts of the law are trying to do what’s right, and trying to put dangerous people in prison where they can’t harm innocent people. But mistakes happen, and no one is perfect. That doesn’t make putting an innocent person behind bars any less forgivable.

For people such as Adnan Syed, years of their life are taken away as they spend them in prisons for crimes they did not commit. It is a tragic fact that so many innocent people are wrongfully accused and convicted, and we hope that in the coming years that fewer and fewer innocent Americans are put behind bars due to a mistake or corruption.

If you have been charged with a crime that you did not commit, it is critical that you seek the help of an experienced, knowledgeable, and dedicated defense attorney. At Carey Law Office, our team will do everything they can to ensure that you will not be wrongfully committed, just as too many others have been in the past. To schedule a consultation, call us at 301-464-2500 or use our contact page. We have offices in Crofton, Bowie, or Owings. We also proudly serve Calvert County.