In ALG Blog

“A Cell” by Aliven Sarkar (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

How ubiquitous is the wrongful conviction? Although you might think scholars and lawyers alike would be keenly interested in knowing, a recent American study shows the opposite is true. Though DNA-driven reversals of murder and sexual assault convictions are well documented, exonerations from the pool of all other criminal convictions are rare. Yet these others cases make up the vast majority of all criminal prosecutions. Unless false confessions, poor eyewitness identification and lying witnesses are taking a vacation when everyone but the murder or sex assault defendant has his trial, something is wrong here.

The straightforward way that DNA can exonerate certainly has something to do with this phenomenon. But it may also be that the incuriosity reflects an aversion to accepting that the system has a higher rate of failure than we would like. As innocence scholars Larry Golden and Keith A. Findley wrote, society likes to treat wrongful convictions as “at worst a freakishly rare anomaly not worthy of concern.” In Canada, as the collateral consequences for even minor convictions escalate, we could use a renewed bit of energy on this topic. We can’t prevent failure unless we learn why and how often it happens.

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