Wrongful Imprisonment Essay

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Wrongful  conviction  occurs when a person  is found to be guilty of a crime that he or she did not  commit,  resulting  in  wrongful  imprisonment or unjustified incarceration. By erroneously depriving an individual of liberty or life, wrongful  conviction  and  imprisonment represent  a critical failure of the criminal justice system. As such, they raise numerous ethical considerations. Because errors are inherent in any system reliant on human judgment, there is a perennial tension between respecting the constitutional right to individual liberty and ensuring public safety and confidence in the criminal justice system. This tension necessitates diligence in estimating the frequency of wrongful convictions and sustained efforts to detect and correct them.

Successful exonerations—when a person is absolved of guilt—reveal several factors that are most commonly associated with wrongful conviction, including: eyewitness misidentification, false confession, and false testimony. Wrongful  conviction and imprisonment entail significant individual and societal costs that are both monetary and nonmonetary. It follows that there is a clear rationale and multiple methods for compensating those who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Prevalence and Detection of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment

Given that the criminal justice system is based on human judgment and that a criminal conviction is the result of a long series of decisions made by numerous individuals, there is a constant potential for errors.  Accordingly,  the goal of a fair criminal justice system is to bring the error rate as close to zero as possible, reducing both Type I (wrongful conviction, mistakenly treating an innocent person as guilty) and Type II (wrongful acquittal, mistakenly treating a guilty person as innocent) errors. In the United States, a conservative estimate of the rate of wrongful conviction is between 0.05 and 1 percent of all felony convictions each year. With more than 2 million people in federal and state prisons, this rate translates to at least 100,000 wrongfully convicted and incarcerated individuals. However, that just over 2,000 people have been exonerated of serious crimes is testament to the difficulty of detecting and correcting wrongful convictions.

The most significant development in the ability to discover and rectify wrongful convictions over the past 25 years is the improvement in and increased availability  of technology to test DNA evidence. Of the known wrongful convictions in the United States, 300 have been cleared through genetic information gleaned from the analysis of DNA at or associated with the crime scene. Indeed, while DNA technology has been an indispensable boon to the detection of wrongful conviction cases, it also means that cases without DNA evidence are underrepresented in exonerations. The centrality of DNA evidence to wrongful conviction helps explain why violent crimes, such as murder and rape, are much more prevalent among exonerations than more common crimes, such as robbery or fraud.

Even though DNA has a well-validated exculpatory capacity, there is no constitutional right to access it. In the U.S. Supreme Court case District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne (2009), the justices ruled that an individual  cannot  demand access to or testing of DNA material after a conviction becomes final. At the federal level, the Justice for All Act of 2004 allows federal inmates to access DNA testing if they claim innocence. Most states have a statute allowing some access to DNA testing; however, most states limit access by barring defendants who pleaded guilty or by having a time limit for requesting the test.

As DNA technology has improved, organized efforts to detect wrongful conviction have developed as well. The Innocence Project, associated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is the leading exemplar in this field. There are now numerous nonprofit groups and  legal clinics associated  with  law  schools that work to identify wrongful conviction cases and to help exonerate those who are wrongfully imprisoned.

Causes of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment

The likelihood of wrongful conviction increases when any of the following occurs: eyewitness misidentification, false confession, false testimony, or various types of misconduct by the state. Eyewitness misidentification is the most frequent cause of wrongful convictions, occurring in 75 to 80 percent of cases. Although  eyewitness evidence can be very persuasive, a variety of cognitive processes pose significant challenges to its accuracy. For example,  when reviewing a police lineup, people have a tendency to compare lineup participants to each other, which can lead them to make a positive identification whether or not the actual culprit is actually in the lineup. People are also subject to intentional or unintentional suggestion. A police officer conducting a lineup may explicitly ask a witness to take a closer look at a suspect or could unconsciously draw more attention to a suspect with nonverbal cues via facial expression or body position.

Another prevalent cause of wrongful convictions is false confessions, which have played a role in a quarter of convictions that have been overturned based on DNA evidence. Similar to eyewitness misidentification, false confessions are problematic because they are a convincing type of evidence. Yet, they are also subject to the vagaries of human cognition such that innocent people can be provoked to provide a false confession, especially in the context of several known factors. Lengthy interrogations, promises of being released upon confession, duress, diminished mental capacity (e.g., disability or inebriation), and threatened or actual physical harm can all induce false confessions. Juveniles and people with mental disabilities can also be particularly susceptible to manipulation and deference to authority figures.

Information gained from those who have an incentive to provide false testimony is another frequent cause of wrongful convictions. For instance, individuals facing imprisonment or who are already incarcerated may be promised leniency or a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against a suspect. Immunity from prosecution, cash, and other valuable items may also be offered. This exchange of information for incentives is rarely disclosed to jury members, which can alter their assessment of the testimony.

Other causes of wrongful conviction are forensic science that is misused, incorrect, or has not been empirically validated to be accurate; misconduct on the part of the state, such as the destruction or concealing of exculpatory evidence (i.e., evidence that could prove a person’s innocence); and legal representation that is deficient or incompetent.

Wrongful  convictions  can  be reduced  with minor alterations to traditional interrogation and lineup procedures. One is to videotape interrogations, which allows for a review of the duration, quality, and type of information gained from questioning a suspect. Another is to have sequential lineups that ask witnesses to review one suspect or photo  at a time. This encourages  comparisons to the perpetrator rather than comparisons between suspects or photos. Finally, double-blind lineups, in which neither the person administering the lineup nor the witness knows who the suspect is, reduce the likelihood of intentional or inadvertent influence of the administrator on the witness.

Cost of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment

The costs of wrongful conviction and imprisonment are varied and extensive. Chief among the societal costs is the fact that a wrongful conviction means the actual offender remains either unprosecuted or at large. Other costs to society arise from the expense of conviction and imprisonment. The cost of a year in prison is close to$50,000 in some states. Moreover, a failure to convict the true offender erodes public trust in the criminal justice system. There are also financial and collateral costs that may accrue to the family, friends, and colleagues of a wrongfully convicted person. In addition to the legal costs of a criminal defense, there may be a loss of income and productivity and diminished family stability.

The wrongfully convicted and imprisoned individual bears the ultimate costs, the most egregious being the unjustified deprivation of liberty and/ or life. Yet, wrongful conviction imposes numerous other far-reaching costs. One of the most consequential outcomes may be the stigma that accompanies incarceration. Those who have been wrongfully convicted rarely receive a full pardon or determination of actual innocence. They therefore have a permanent criminal record, which can have deleterious effects on acquiring the necessities of employment and housing. Any gap in employment can be a detriment to finding a job; moreover, the longer a person is incarcerated, the more out of date their job skills may become. Having a criminal record can also limit where a person can live, in addition to limiting eligibility for government assistance in housing.

A wrongful  conviction  also threatens mental and physical health. False accusation and unwarranted imprisonment can be exceptionally isolating, demoralizing, and traumatic. These negative effects on mental health can be permanent and may affect many other aspects of a person’s life. Poor medical care during the period of incarceration can provoke or exacerbate health conditions that may persist long after a person is released from prison. Finally, being incarcerated deprives a person of the opportunity to have the normal experiences of life, typically resulting in a deficit of practical life skills.

Compensation for Exonerated Individuals

By definition, the state is at fault in a wrongful conviction. That is, regardless of the specific cause of the wrongful conviction (e.g., false eyewitness testimony,  prosecutorial  misconduct,  etc.),  it occurs as a function of a system sanctioned by the state. Accordingly, the state is responsible for compensating those who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. This tenet is recognized internationally in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), one of the seven core human rights treaties. Article 9(5) states that, “Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation”.

In the United States, there are three ways for wrongfully convicted people to be compensated: civil legal action, special legislation (i.e., ex gratia or “by favor” awards), and compensation statutes. Those who have been exonerated may be able to receive compensation through civil legal action under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. §1983. In essence, this federal statute allows people to sue state agents for violating their constitutional rights. A wrongfully convicted person can file a lawsuit under §1983 based on the right to be free from malicious prosecution, extraction of involuntary confessions, and/or suppression of favorable evidence (for the accused) by the police.

The major hindrance to seeking redress under this statute is prosecutorial immunity. In a series of cases from Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976) to Connick v. Thompson, 131 S. Ct. 1350, 1360 (2011), the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity. This doctrine is meant to protect officials who are involved in prosecuting crimes from frivolous or vindictive lawsuits brought by those who have been convicted of a crime. As long as police officers meet the low legal standard of probable cause, they will be protected by this immunity. Because prosecutorial and/or police misconduct is a frequent factor in wrongful convictions, the sovereignty afforded these actors is a major obstacle to successful compensation claims.

Special legislation is another possible source of compensation for those who have been exonerated of a criminal conviction. Such legislation is a bill introduced in the state legislature for the express and limited purpose of providing compensation to a specific exonerated individual. Receiving compensation through this type of special legislation is typically limited by the political connections of the individual, the general political climate, and the prohibition against such special legislation in some states. Moreover, it is a protracted process that produces highly variable results. On the other hand, special legislation can provide for large monetary awards and offers an opportunity for public acknowledgement of the wrongful conviction.

Compensation statutes are the final source of compensation for exonerated individuals. These statutes are state or federal laws that provide a baseline for compensating those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. Currently, a slight majority of states have such a statute, with legislation pending in several others. Most provide for some type of monetary compensation and some have a maximum award amount. There is a wide range of monetary compensation, for example: a maximum of $100 per day of wrongful imprisonment in California, $15,000 per year with a $150,000 maximum in Louisiana, a minimum of $50,000 for each year of incarceration in Alabama,  and “fair and reasonable” compensation in New York.

Statutes  can also provide  for compensation geared toward restoring  an exonerated person to a functional and productive  life. Wrongfully convicted people in the United States are incarcerated an average of 11 years. This separation from society creates gaps in job history, job skills, and social networks. As a result, compensation statutes increasingly provide for mental and physical health care, tuition, and/or job skills training for exonerated individuals. Because statutes can allocate universally available monetary and nonmonetary compensation while requiring relatively less effort on the part of exonerated individuals, statutes are superior to both civil legal action and special legislation in terms of equity and efficiency.


  1. Bernhard, Adele. “When Justice Fails: Indemnification for Unjust Conviction.” University of Chicago Roundtable, v.73/6 (1999).
  2. Dwyer, Jim, Peter Neufeld, and Barry Scheck. Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right. New York: New American Library,
  3. Gross, Samuel R. and Michael Shaffer. “Exonerations in the United States, 1989–2012.” University of Michigan Public Law Working Paper No. 227.2012.
  4. Innocence Project of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. http://www.innocenceproject.org (Accessed April 2013).
  5. The National Registry of Exonerations. http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx (Accessed April 2013).
  6. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/ Pages/CCPR.aspx (Accessed April 2013).

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