The American justice system was created on the principal that people are innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, stemming from an "anti-crime" wave of legislation enacted decades ago, more people in recent years have been incarcerated than ever before. In addition, the court system and prosecutors have carried an increased burden in finances and time, so that often individual scrutiny on some cases is harder to obtain than ever. Not coincidentally, more people have become exonerated of their crime (freed from any criminal charge) than at any time in the nation's history.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 87 exonerations occurred in 2013. Perhaps most startling, one-third of those people exonerated were incarcerated for crimes that never even happened. Generally, these situations occurred when an accidental death resulted in a homicide charge. Since 1989, when exonerations started to be tracked, there have been 1,304 exonerations.
The majority of exonerations are for homicide and sexual assault cases. Most of the people exonerated became so after it was revealed that they were falsely accused, a witness committed perjury during the trial or the defendant confessed to a crime he or she did not commit. On average, those people exonerated in 2013 had been convicted 12 years prior to being released.
There are a number of reasons why exonerations have become more common. Forensic evidence has improved and DNA evidence resulted in the exoneration in 18 of the 87 cases in 2013. According to a recent study by University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, research suggests that cases which have been traditionally ignored with regard to exoneration, such as convictions resulting from guilty pleas, have become more likely to be revisited. On its face, a guilty plea would seem to indicate guilt; however, false confessions occur more often than would be expected, and some criminal defendants will agree to a guilty plea in order to avoid trial and the potential for an even greater sentence.
In a recent article published by the Iowa Law Review, researchers found that wrongful convictions often resulted from numerous errors throughout the criminal justice system. Often such convictions began when police and prosecutors used one piece of evidence as proof of guilt. From there, the authors wrote, "investigators fail to follow-up or become influenced in their interpretation of subsequently collected evidence."
Finding oneself in the criminal justice system can be a horrific experience. Even if innocent, one suspicious piece of evidence can result in a conviction. In addition, the fast-paced and high-volume nature of today's criminal court system means that plea bargaining and obtaining guilty pleas are a high priority for prosecutors and officers of the law. That is why obtaining the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney is paramount to protecting innocent people from being convicted of a crime they did not commit.
People accused of a crime should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss their legal options and to protect their rights.