Wrongful convictions are convictions where "factually innocent people are convicted of crimes" (Acker & Redlich, 2011, p.3). There are a number of ways that wrongful convictions can occur. Two of these ways are no crime convictions and wrong man convictions (Acker & Reclich, 2011, p.7-8). No crime convictions occur when someone is convicted of a crime, generally murder, and then it is later discovered that no crime has been committed. Wrong man convictions are far more common; they occur when a crime has been committed, but the wrong person has been convicted of the crime. However, crimes in which the correct person is convicted of the crime, while there may be legal problems with their conviction, are not considered wrongful convictions. Another name for wrongful conviction is actual innocence.
It is impossible to assess how many innocent people are actually in prison, today. The reality is that a sufficient number of actually guilty people proclaim innocence that one cannot determine innocence based on a defendant's assertions of innocence. Another reality is that even people who are actually innocent may face almost insurmountable hurdles in achieving a meaningful review of the facts supporting their convictions, so that many people who are actually innocent may never receive any exoneration of their sentences. While it is impossible to state the figures with certainty, "the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison)" (Actual Innocence, How many innocent people are in prison, 2013). Furthermore, it is impossible to estimate the average sentences of those people who have been wrongfully convicted without identifying all of those who have been wrongfully convicted. However, when looking at those who have been exonerated by DNA evidence, the average sentence is 13 years in prison (Actual Innocence, How much time did exonerees serve in prison, 2013). Furthermore, the range of time is from five months to 35 years (Innocence Project, How much time did exonerees serve in prison, 2013). Of course, these figures cannot and do not include those who have been executed who were wrongfully convicted of their crimes.
In order to understand how a wrongful conviction occurs, this paper will examine the case of Henry James, who was wrongfully convicted of rape. James served almost 30 years of his sentence, and, because the state had misplaced the evidence in his case, almost lost the opportunity to be exonerated. What makes his case even more dramatic is that, at the time of his conviction, there was scientific evidence that excluded him from the pool of possible offenders. However, the victim identified him as a perpetrator of the crime and his own attorney failed to get the exonerating evidence before the court. This combination of events resulted in a man losing most of his adulthood to prison.
Henry James was accused and convicted of raping one of his neighbors. The day before the neighbor was raped; James actually spent the day helping her husband repair his car. The two were later in a car accident, which resulted in the arrest of the victim's husband. James went to her home and told her that her husband had been arrested. Though the victim and James were not friendly, she knew that lived nearby and had seen him on a few occasions prior to that day. The next morning, someone broke into the victim's house at approximately 6am and raped the victim at knifepoint. When questioned by the police that morning, the victim reported that she did not know her assailant (Innocence Project, 2011).
James was a partial match for the victim's description of her assailant. James was identified as a possible suspect by an officer doing a random patrol of the neighborhood. The victim later picked James out of a photo book containing other African-American male suspects. She re-identified James during a line-up, but never told the police that she had previously met James. The victim identified James as her assailant in court (Innocence Project, 2011). A physical examination following the victim's assault recovered seminal fluid and sperm. It was tested and the results excluded James, a secretor, as a perpetrator because the results demonstrated that the attacker was a nonsecretor (Innocence Project, 2011). However, the jury was not given this information. Not only did James provide testimony that he was asleep at the time of the crime, but he also presented three alibi witnesses to back up his alibi (Innocence Project, 2011). James was convicted of aggravated rape and sentence to life without parole (Innocence Project, 2011).
James appealed his conviction, but his conviction was affirmed. "After exhausting his appeals, James reached out to the Innocence Project, which sought to do DNA testing of the evidence recovered in the rape kit. Although officials at the Jefferson Parish Crime Laboratory were cooperative, the initial search for the evidence proved fruitless. The legal team eventually filed a motion on James' behalf seeking testing on the evidence, but another search on February 18, 2010 also proved fruitless" (Innocence Project, 2011). Fortunately, the evidence was later discovered in the evidence for an unrelated case, and Milton Dureau, a lab worker, recalled that the case number on the slides was being sought in a different case. The evidence was sent to a lab, which did STR DNA testing on the slide. The testing, which was completed on September 26, 2011, excluded James as the perpetrator in the rape (Actual Innocence, 2011). This discovery led to James having his conviction overturned and James being freed from prison.
Looking at James' conviction, one cannot help but see the role that mistaken eyewitness identification played in his conviction. This should come as no surprise; "mistaken identifications are the leading factor in wrongful convictions" (Innocence Project, Eyewitness identification reform, 2013). In fact, "Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 75% of the 301 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence" (Innocence Project, Eyewitness identification reform, 2013). Although they have traditionally been considered one of the best sources of information, eyewitness identifications are notorious for their likelihood of error. "There are numerous reasons for this: (1) witnesses are subject to high stress or anxiety; (2) the human memory tends to reconstruct incidents because humans do not have the capability to record memories like a video recorder; (3) witnesses often focus on weapons, not the identity of the perpetrator; (4) suggestive eyewitness identification procedures used by police or prosecutorial agencies; and (5) cross-racial eyewitness identifications are known to be incredibly suspect" (California Innocence Project, 2011).
Examining James' conviction, it appears that the police should have questioned the witness's identification of James as a suspect from the beginning. The victim affirmatively stated that she did not know her attacker on the morning of her attack. However, James spent the day before the assault at the victim's home. First, he helped the victim's husband with a car repair. Later, he returned to the home to inform the victim that her husband had been arrested. In addition, she had seen James on a few occasions prior to the assault. While they were not friends, she did recognize him. Therefore, the fact that she said she did not know her attacker should have been examined more carefully when she later identified James as her attacker. However, because of the weight of eyewitnesses' identifications, it was not critically examined. This is an example of a societal issue, where misconceptions in the public mind about evidentiary issues become part of public policy and the law. Increasing knowledge about the likelihood of false positive eyewitness identification would help explain this societal problem.
Another startling thing about James's exoneration if that it almost did not happen. The state was cooperative with the defense's requests to test evidence, but could not locate the evidence that needed to be tested. However, because there were no technical problems with James's conviction, this burden impacted James, not the state. The evidence was only discovered by accident, when Dureau found it had been placed with the evidence from a different case. Only because Dureau recalled that the case number was connected to a case where he was looking for evidence did the evidence ever get linked to James. Therefore, in many ways James's exoneration was random; he could just as easily still be in prison for a crime that he did not commit.
As Henry James' case proves, wrongful convictions do occur. What is interesting to discuss is why these cases occur. "In addition to its other shortcomings, the criminal justice system produces an unknown number of erroneous determinations of innocence and guilt. Honest mistakes happen. So do dishonest ones. The rich enjoy every kind of protection, but some people are wrongly judged or punished. Usually the defendants adversely affected are poor persons of color" (Christianson, 2006, p.1). People…