10,000 INNOCENT PEOPLE CONVICTED EACH YEAR, STUDY ESTIMATES
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- About 10,000 people in the United States may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each year, a new study suggests.
The results are based on a survey of 188 judges, prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs and police
chiefs in Ohio and 41 state attorneys general.
The study also found that the most important factor leading to wrongful conviction is eyewitness
These findings are included in the new book Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy (Sage Publications, 1996). The book was written by C. Ronald Huff, director of the Criminal Justice Research Center and the School of Public Policy and Management at Ohio State University; Arye Rattner, professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, Israel; and the late Edward Sagarin, who was a professor of sociology at City College and CityUniversity of New York.
The survey asked respondents to estimate the prevalence of wrongful conviction in the United States. About 72 percent estimated that less than 1 percent -- but more than zero -- of convictions were of innocent people.
Based on these results, Huff estimated conservatively that 0.5 percent of the 1,993,880 convictions for index
crimes in 1990 were of innocent people. (Index crimes, which are reported by the FBI, are murder and non-negligent
manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.)
That would result in an estimated 9,969 wrongful convictions.
Huff said he thinks that number is probably low. "Our sample was stacked in favor of obtaining conservative estimates," Huff said. Most of those surveyed -- including prosecutors and law enforcement officials -- "have every reason to defend the system's accuracy and underestimate error," he said. Only 9 percent of the respondents were public defenders, who might be more critical of the criminal justice system.
Wrongful convictions undermine public confidence in the judicial system and should be viewed with alarm, said Huff.
It troubles Huff that liberals seem more concerned about the issue than conservatives. "Conservatives, too,
should be concerned because it's a public safety issue. The actual offender remains free to victimize other citizens."
Huff cites the case of William Jackson, a Columbus man who spent five years behind bars in the early 1980s for rapes later determined to have been committed by a physician who was similar in appearance and had the same last name.
"No one has ever known for sure how many women Dr. Jackson raped while the wrong man was in prison. He had five more years to continue his serial rapes."
What causes wrongful convictions? To find out, Huff and his co-authors created a database of 205 wrongful convictions collected from a variety of sources. After analyzing these cases, the researchers found that most wrongful convictions resulted from a combination of errors. The main cause in more than half of the cases -- 52.3 percent -- was eyewitness misidentification.
That's understandable, Huff said. "The victims are not, at the time of the crime, concentrating too much on the features of the assailant's face. For example, they may be looking at the weapon. The trauma of the moment interferes with their ability to recall details."
The next most common main cause was perjury by a witness, which contributed to 11 percent of the convictions. Other problems included negligence by criminal justice officials, coerced confessions, "frame ups" by guilty parties, and general overzealousness by officers and prosecutors.
Overzealousness can lead authorities to make careless, if unintentional errors, and cause some authorities to bend rules to get a known criminal off the street. Failure to keep an open mind can cause errors that become rubber-stamped by trusting colleagues as the case moves through the judicial process, Huff says. By the time the errors are discovered, the trail to the real offender is cold.
Public pressure to solve a case and the organizational culture of a police or district attorney's office can affect the process. While most errors are unintentional, the researchers say there are far too many incidences of unethical and unprofessional behavior.
"Our research has convinced us that such unethical conduct in the United States has not, in general, received appropriate attention, nor has it been adequately punished," Huff said.
The authors said that can be remedied by training police, prosecutors and judges in the causes and effects of wrongful convictions and removing officials who knowingly manipulate evidence, commit perjury, bias witnesses, or withhold evidence that could clear the accused. "Such persons should not hold positions of public trust," Huff said. "The average person thinks the prosecutor's job is to seek convictions. Under the law, the prosecutor's actual job is to seek justice, whether or not it involves a conviction."
Huff, Rattner and Sagarin also call for:
"Surveys have shown that 85 percent of Americans favor capital punishment. But if you change the phrasing of the question to: 'In light of the possibility of error, would you favor execution or life in prison without parole?' you find a dramatic drop in the number of people who favor capital punishment.
Life imprisonment is actually a much less costly alternative and eliminates the chance of a mistake. "If you
lock someone up for life, you take him off the streets, but you can later release him and compensate him if you discover that you made an error. If you kill him, you no longer have that option and you also send a message that violent solutions -- executions -- are approved by the state."
Contact: C. Ronald Huff, (614) 292-4544; firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Tom Spring, (614) 292-8309
Jeff Grabmeier, Managing Editor (email@example.com)
Earle Holland, Director, Science Communications (firstname.lastname@example.org)