Despite the extensive constitutional protections built into the American justice system that make it one of the most progressive systems in the modernized world, it is no secret that some people are accused, and even convicted, of crimes that they did not commit. In a perfect world, the justice system would operate in a manner that would prevent such miscarriages of justice. But in a system whose foundation rests on humans, and inevitable human errors, mistakes do occur.
Overturning a Wrongful Conviction
When you are convicted of a crime under state law, a judge or jury has found that you committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and the judge has sentenced you for that conviction, typically based on your state’s sentencing guidelines, which vary widely from state to state. Most wrongful convictions result from mistaken identification or eyewitness testimony, false confessions, snitches or confidential informants, inadequate legal counsel, and police and/or prosecutorial misconduct. All of these incidents may create grounds for the overturning of a criminal conviction. If you believe that you have been convicted wrongfully, and particularly, as a result of one of the factors listed above, you may have grounds to have your conviction overturned.
In order to have your criminal conviction reconsidered, you may first ask the trial judge to review your conviction and/or sentence again, or to correct any errors that have been made, a procedure that is available in many states. Typically, you must ask for this reconsideration quite soon following your conviction. Assuming that the trial judge denies your request for reconsideration or to correct errors, your next step is to file an appeal with the appropriate state appeals court. There are many procedural rules to follow in filing an appeal, and you should consider enlisting the assistance of an attorney to help you prove that you were wrongfully convicted. Essentially, you are asking the appeals court to find that you were wrongfully convicted, due to an error made by the trial court judge or jury. If your appeal still is denied, you have further recourse in that you can appeal to the supreme court of your state, or the highest level of appeals court.
Mistaken Identification by Eyewitnesses
Criminal justice system experts maintain that mistaken identifications by eyewitnesses remain the most common cause of wrongful convictions in the United States today. Because identification of defendants by witnesses are crucial pieces of evidence in criminal cases, and yet are undeniably subject to human error, misidentifications can and do result in wrongful convictions. The reality is that human memory is imperfect, and eyewitness identifications based on split-second events that may have taken place relatively far away, in poorly lit areas, are often simply wrong.
While it may seem difficult to believe that criminal defendants ever give false confessions, this phenomenon does occur, and can result in wrongful convictions. Defendants give false confessions for a wide variety of reasons, which include police pressure, lengthy, stressful interrogations, lack of mental capacity, intoxication, ignorance of the law, or fear of violent consequences if the truth is told. Particularly with defendants who have low IQs or mental illnesses, the potential for manipulation of false confessions is quite high.
Snitches or Informants
Furthermore, criminal charges often rest on the testimony of snitches, which are referred to as confidential informants in some states. Since snitches are typically given some sort of incentive in exchange for their testimony, such as a decreased jail sentence, more favorable treatment while incarcerated, or the dismissal of criminal charges altogether, there is no shortage of desperate jailhouse snitches who are willing to come forward with evidence to help convict other defendants, however fabricated that evidence might be.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
For the typical criminal defendant who has no access to funds to pay for a private criminal defense attorney, the only source of representation with respect to their criminal charges is a public defender, or a court-appointed attorney. While there are many, many highly experienced, quality court-appointed lawyers, there are also some such attorneys who are inexperienced, underpaid, and overworked by the sheer number of criminal defense clients assigned to them. As a result, there are cases in which a criminal defendant receives ineffective or inadequate legal representation. While some such cases are overturned on appeal on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, a far greater number are upheld for a variety of reasons, even where the attorney’s behavior might appear inadequate, at best.
Police and/or Prosecutorial Misconduct
Like all human beings, police officers and prosecuting attorneys sometimes make misjudgments and errors, and even commit misconduct that results in wrongful convictions. Just recently, a federal court of appeals overturned the conviction of a criminal defendant where the prosecutor had excluded all African-Americans from the jury on the basis of their race, despite the fact that the county population from which the jury was chosen was 55% African-American. The court concluded that the prosecutor had engaged in illegal race discrimination in that case. Other wrongful conviction cases have involved police misconduct, such as where a police officer has coerced a criminal defendant into making a false confession, or where a police officer has lied or exaggerated his testimony during a criminal trial.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.
Additional Criminal Conviction Appeals Articles
- Wrongful Convictions Resulting from False Confessions
- Overturning Wrongful Convictions Through DNA Testing
Search LawInfo's Criminal Conviction Appeals Resources
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