Every year, millions of defendants pass through the U.S. court system. Experts say that as many as 4% of people on death row are innocent. While 4% may not seem like a huge number, think about it this way—that means 4 people out of every 100 people are sentenced to die for a crime they didn’t commit. In other words, that’s roughly one person out of every 25. What’s more, 4% is a conservative, best guess estimate. The true percentage might be much higher.
Facing the death penalty is the most extreme example of punishment for a capital offense. However, a number of individuals who are innocent are still incarcerated for lesser, yet still serious, crimes. In the U.S., over 130 innocent people were exonerated in 2017. But there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of others who have been wrongfully convicted and who are still incarcerated.
Of the innocent who were exonerated in 2017, over half were originally wrongfully convicted due to police and/or prosecutor misconduct. Unfortunately, there are police who have been found to do everything from perjure themselves to threaten witnesses. Some prosecutors have lied to judges and jurors, and some have hidden evidence.
Here are just a few of the other reasons some are innocent, yet incarcerated:
Problem with judges: Judges should be unbiased. They should be wary of testimony from career criminals who might be seeking leniency or otherwise have some other nefarious motive. They should do many things to ensure the trial is fair. For whatever reasons, judges sometimes fail to do some or all of these things. Sadly, some judges who are elected may be more focused on getting reelected and how their handling of cases (e.g., is the judge deemed not to be tough enough on crime) may affect their reputations.
False confessions: Almost 11 percent of 362 DNA-based exonerations in the U.S. since 1989 involved people pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. What’s more, the majority of these false confessions came from people of color.
Why would a person confess to a crime he or she hasn’t committed? The idea of someone doing so is difficult to understand, but this situation occurs with some degree of frequency. But consider some of the circumstances that could elicit a false confession: police using extensive and/or abusive interrogation trying to get a confession from an accused individual when the individual doesn’t have an attorney present. Some people, sleep deprived and subjected to such interrogation, may confess to a crime they didn’t commit, just to make the interrogation stop. This is why some of the accused who have confessed later change their stories and recant confessions later.
Inept legal help: Some defendants who don’t have money often rely on public defenders. Sometimes these professionals are quite good, but sometimes, such lawyers have very little or even no experience representing clients, especially those facing very serious charges. Unable to navigate through the complexities of such cases, these lawyers are sometimes simply not able to give the client the best representation possible.
It has been well documented that historically, black people have frequently not received fair treatment in the U.S. court system. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go. A disproportionate number of black people are still convicted of crimes they did not commit. In fact, black people are 7 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than white people.
There are no simple solutions to this very complex ordeal. However, by shedding more light on this situation, perhaps defendants can realize what challenges they face within the legal system. What’s more, having solid, experienced legal representation at the outset can help reduce the likelihood that an innocent person is sent to prison.