New Study Predicts Wrongful Conviction Rate in U.S. at 5,000 to 10,000 Per Year

Prof. Marvin Zalman

By Professor Marvin Zalman.   Full article here.

The conclusion states:

The ultimate question is whether the prospect of, at a minimum, 2,000 innocent defendants going to prison every year (with capital murder defendants a disproportionately higher part of this total as their wrongful conviction rates are demonstrably higher than 0.5%), and another 3,000 receiving lesser felony sentences, should move the innocence reform agenda. That question will be decided in the political and policy arenas. Whatever activists or policy makers do, scholars have an obligation to think clearly about the issue. This obligation led me to rethink the bases of my belief that the Estimate of a general wrongful felony conviction rate of 0.5% to 1.0% is correct, which reconsideration has been explained at length herein.

As the Estimate is an estimate it could be wrong in either direction. It is likely that the number-of-wrongful-convictions-is-vanishingly- small hypothesis is the ideologically tinged wishful thinking or defensive reaction of some judges and prosecutors. Against such a conclusion, I hold to the Estimate beyond a reasonable doubt (in the law’s terminol-ogy) or almost certainly (using words of estimative probability).  It may be that the actual general rate of wrongful convictions across the nation is higher, a possibility that is limited by the fact and the conjecture that wrongful death sentences are higher, at about 3%.  It is also cabined by the opinion surveys of justice system actors.  Against the Estimate being wrong in that direction, I hold to it with less firmness. In legal terms I believe that clear and convincing evidence and reasoning supports the Estimate against a higher error rate. Applying terms of estimative probability, the Estimate is probably correct against a higher error rate.

Acceptance of the Estimate creates a moral obligation to correct the factors that most likely generate wrongful convictions. If the Estimate is wrong as against higher estimates of 2 or 3% or higher, moral and professional reasons to enact innocence reforms become stronger. The more difficult issue is whether an error rate of 0.5 or 1% justifies reform efforts. I believe that most Americans would say that one out of 100, or even one out of 200 unnecessary infections contracted by hospital patients because of preventable systemic problems is too high in an advanced technological society. I believe that most Americans would say that one out of 100, or even one out of 200 innocent defendants convicted of felonies because of a range of preventable systemic errors by the very governmental system designed to provide justice is too high in a society guided by the rule of law. Arguments to the contrary are based either on ignorance of criminal justice realities or on faulty cost-benefit analyses. The intuition of those who support justice system reforms designed to prevent wrongful convictions, that wrongful convictions are large in number, is supported by a sober look at the realities of the criminal justice. The imperative to act and to keep as few as 2,000 innocent inmates a year out of prison is supported by our ideals of justice and our com- mitment to professionalism in the justice system.

19 responses to “New Study Predicts Wrongful Conviction Rate in U.S. at 5,000 to 10,000 Per Year

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve been thirsting for data on the subject. The study is “qualitative” and necessarily inferential, but I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to do better than that.

  2. arkansastruthseeker

    Reblogged this on arkansastruthseeker.

  3. After reading the Professors article,I realize an accurate number of false convictions would be difficult to obtain. So I have taken a different path in justifying the cost of reform in our system. First we can look at they way D.A.’s are rewarded (re-elected) for doin their jobs. It is generally associated with a high conviction rate. These people work for us. Their only concern should be that justice was served for the benefit of society, not their conviction rate which only benefits their careers. Second I would look at the difficulty in waging a proper defense without the necessary funds that it requires. The current system has obviously tilted the scales greatly in favor of the weathly. Finally I think adding data to your study that shows the effect of being one being poor , to the likelihood of one being wrongfully convicted. Those adjustments alone would be an effective start.

  4. With New York’s over 50 prisons in the depressed upstate economy . How fair of a trial do you think you will get when the majority of the town either works for is related to someone in corrections. Just this last month on Dateline NBC there were two wrongful conviction cases out of New York. I have been spreading the word about New York state’s public defense crisis for years
    I’m here to tell you my husband is being wrongfully imprisoned for murder in New York state since November of 1992. But before unraveling the issues and facts, I ask you : Do you feel secure in your liberty and justice knowing that the following circumstances exist to deprive people of their freedom and lives ?
    There was a trial, but the Legal Aid defense attorney who handles the case made no meaningful defensive investigation. Angry at my husbands refusal to accept a plea deal for a crime he did not do, Legal Aid worked to prevent an effective defense.
    Identification procedures were found by the court to have been ” certainly suggestive” but allowed. Indications of misidentification at key points are indicated, but ignored. Over a dozen police reports, and accounts from at least four additional witnesses are being withheld by the prosecution. Also, crucial evidence such as the deceased’s leather jacket, pants. underwear, boots and socks, as well as hospital x-rays, autopsy photos, weapons, and blood samples are absent or not being disclosed by the prosecution. These and other indications of evidence manipulation went unchallenged and ignored by Legal Aid.
    The jury itself was unfair and biased. Prejudicial evidence suppressed by the court nevertheless reached the jury without the courts knowledge. On record, Legal Aid refused to inquire into objections to the unfair jury. On other occasions some jurors maintained their biased intent to view all evidence in favor of guilt.
    Some declared their social connections to those prosecuting the case yet were never removed from acting as a jury member . Legal Aid refused to act upon any of this. It is even demonstrated that the Legal Aid attorney, and an intern, both perjured themselves on the stand to prevent my husbands relief in a post-trail issue. But the court chose to protect the attorney’s careers and ignore this falseness rather than rule in my husbands favor. This can happen to anybody’s family. None are immune !
    Taken together with other specifics of the case, the unreliable and unjust nature of this New York conviction should be apparent.

  5. I also have had personal experience of such injustice ( in my family and among my friends), although not always confined to legal aid, even paid lawyers can be lazy or biased or incompetent, and do not reveal that either in advance or at the time.
    And sometimes other factors conspire, such as race bias or class bias. I’m so sorry you are suffering with this.

  6. Hello there, I would like to post the link to a website I’ve created for my best friend, Jason Burkett. Jason is currently serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. If you find the time, I would really appreciate you checking out the website. It’s
    Any help, any word of comfort and encouragement, and any support is greatly appreciated!!!! Thank you! Stefan

  7. My Son Bryce was arrested at age 15 for a murder on 12-31-2009 in TX. Before the victim died he named his murderer, he said his own son Nick, this is a fact documented in the *Original* police report 090979792. A Forensic Psychologist for the defense found my minor child not guilty and not culpable, she named the person who was. The defense never presented her report, I have this document also. She also wrote in length about my sons Neurological Disorder and his cognitive disabilties. He couldn’t possibly be a competent adult at age 15! His history is WELL DOCUMENTED as is the fraud case. ORIGINAL case-2010-JUVI-003-22a….

    On September 9th 2012 Texas will tranfer my son over to a G4 G5 Adult notorious prison…. unless someone stop this injustice I fear my son will be raped, stabbed beaten and murdered, he fears this also. please help Bryce,

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  17. Look at case which has been reversed by the Georgia Court of Appeals at docket # A13A0151, Released 8-09-13 from prison due to county superior court not having venue or jurisdiction.Tthat court sentenced me 20 years serve 12. How can judges and prosecutors not know what the laws are in there state which they are sworn to uphold?

  18. A lot of this stems from the plea bargaining system which has become a complete abridgement of justice. When the penalty between a trial and a plea bargain is plainly identifiable by simple numbers it is not hard to see that it has become a systemic abuse.

    Additionally, I can personally speak to wrongful conviction being a recognized and common practice in our criminal courts today. In my specific circumstance it only cost me two years of my life and release only upon the essential blackmail condition of ‘filing no further’ (Idaho). Our criminal justice system is a system of blackmail and suppression of political dissent. It doesn’t matter who is in power or what the agenda is. The system is built so that whomever wears the badge, the suit, or the robe can push whatever agenda their overlords and financiers desire. It is equal opportunity corruption.

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