It is impossible to know how many people are convicted every year of crimes that they did not commit. What we do know is that advances in DNA testing have freed more than 140 innocent inmates from death row during the last four decades. Because prisoners sentenced to death represent a small percentage of the prison population, there must be thousands of innocent people serving other unjust sentences.
Most wrongful convictions are based on evidence that cannot be challenged with DNA tests. That means that most undeserved convictions are never overturned. If you have been falsely accused of a crime, you need to take action immediately to save yourself from potentially disastrous consequences.
Why are innocent people convicted?
Wrongful convictions can occur for many reasons. Here are a few:
Some innocent defendants are prosecuted on the basis of lies. A false claim of sexual assault, for example, can be motivated by a desire for revenge or to conceal infidelity. Impressionable children can be unwittingly encouraged to "remember" events that never happened when questioned by teachers or poorly trained therapists. An informant hoping to make a deal with the police might name an innocent person as their drug supplier rather than giving up the real dealer's identity.
Studies show that memories formed under stress are unreliable. If you happen to resemble the true perpetrator of a crime, particularly if the victim has seen you somewhere in the past, you might be blamed for a crime that you did not commit.
Failure to Investigate
Police detectives generally have high caseloads and too little time to investigate each case thoroughly. They often feel pressure to improve their "cleared by arrest" statistics. Too often, police detectives identify a suspect early in the investigation and devote all of their resources to proving the suspect's guilt while ignoring evidence that doesn't fit the theory of guilt that they have formed. The result of sloppy police work is too often a wrongful arrest and the prosecution of an innocent defendant.
When the police feel pressured to make an arrest but lack sufficient evidence, they sometimes fabricate evidence to make their jobs easier. More often, they pressure witnesses to make identifications even if the witnesses think that they might be mistaken, or they coach witnesses to make statements that they can use to justify an arrest.
Prosecutors want to win their cases. That desire is part of human nature. Unfortunately, some prosecutors want to win at all costs. The law requires prosecutors to give the defense any evidence that suggests the defendant’s innocence. Unscrupulous prosecutors sometimes conceal that evidence in order to improve their chances of winning a conviction.
Studies demonstrate when innocent people are subjected to relentless interrogation by police officers, they may confess to crimes they did not commit. Psychological coercion can be just as effective as physical beatings when used as a tool to produce confessions. Unfortunately, confessions made under stress in response to intimidating interrogations are often false.
Whenever a suspect talks to the police, the risk exists that the police officer will misunderstand, misinterpret or misremember the suspect's statement. Police officers who question suspects in the field usually take cursory notes, if any, and rely on their memories when they write a report hours later. When they get the details wrong, and a suspect later tries to correct the statement, the suspect is accused of changing their story and is made to look like a liar.
How can I avoid conviction if I'm falsely accused of a crime?
Innocent people often think that they have nothing to fear from the police. They learn a harsh lesson after they have been sentenced to prison for crimes that they did not commit. Unless you were the victim of a crime, or you are a witness who reported a crime, you should be wary if the police want to talk to you. Any time a police detective initiates a conversation about criminal activity, you should assume that you are a suspect. The police are trained to view everyone as a suspect.
They are also trained to deceive people in order to persuade them to submit to interviews. Unfortunately, when you talk to the police, you can only control what you say. You cannot control their understanding or recollection of your words. Countless defendants have responded to a police detective's interview report by exclaiming, "But I didn’t say that!" If it comes down to your word against a police detective's, who will the trier of fact believe?
Two simple rules are your best safeguard against a wrongful conviction. Deviate from them at your peril:
Rule 1: Never Talk to the Police
You have the right to remain silent. Use it. That right exists whether or not you are under arrest or charged with a crime. The police only need to warn you of that right if you are in custody and are about to be questioned. If a police detective asks you questions after knocking on your front door, the detective will not tell you that you have no obligation to answer. Always remember that it is your right to refuse to speak to the police.
What you do not say can never be used against you. By declining to answer an officer's questions, you avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication. You also avoid being intimidated or pressured into saying something you did not mean. If you answer questions by speculating or guessing, the police will record it as fact. If the fact turns out to be wrong, you will look like a liar. The only way to be certain that you do not say the wrong thing is to say nothing.
Rule 2: Talk to a Lawyer Right Away
If the police want to question you about a crime, you need legal advice. Even one conversation with a police detective, "just to see what they want," is one too many. After speaking to the police on your behalf, a lawyer can decide whether it's safe for you to make a statement or to submit to questioning. A lawyer can also control the terms of the interview by remaining at your side and by warning you not to answer questions if they seem to hint at your involvement in a crime. Under most circumstances, if there is any possibility that you might be viewed as a suspect, your lawyer will advise you to make no statement at all.
A lawyer can also protect your rights if you are asked to participate in a lineup, provide a handwriting or DNA sample, or permit a search of your property. You should never agree to "cooperate" with the police until you have obtained legal advice. Only then can you be certain that all legal procedures designed to protect the innocent are followed in your case.
If you have been charged or think you might be charged with a crime, it is crucial to retain a lawyer immediately. Your lawyer may want to have a private investigator search for evidence of your innocence that the police overlooked or ignored. It may be necessary to interview helpful witnesses while their memories are still fresh. The sooner an investigation begins that is geared toward proving your innocence, the more likely it is that you will be exonerated.
Following the two simple rules above will give you the best chance of avoiding being convicted of a crime that you did not commit. By talking to a lawyer instead of the police, you will not make the key mistakes that explain why so many innocent people are behind bars.