For many people in Texas, a wrongful conviction is one of their worst nightmares. With the advent of computer surveillance technology and DNA testing, many might hope that wrongful convictions are less likely than they were in the past. However, many cases, especially for more minor crimes like shoplifting, theft or drug possession, continue to rely on standard types of evidence that are particularly prone to mistake or error. According to one criminologist who studied the prison population, up to 6% of prisoners could be wrongfully jailed for crimes they did not commit.
Famous DNA exonerations have drawn widespread attention to the problem of wrongful convictions. In some of these cases, police or prosecutors were corrupt or hid evidence that could exonerate the defendant. In other cases, early forensic scientists were prone to mistakes, while other false convictions simply rested upon the fallibility of eyewitness testimony. Statistics have shown that DNA has led to exonerations in 3 to 5% of convictions in capital cases like those involving murder and rape. Because of the severity of the sentences involved, most attention has focused on these cases. However, wrongful conviction is at least as likely in more routine cases.
The criminologists involved in this study asked people in prison about their responsibility for the crimes for which they were convicted. They note that people may have an interest in denying involvement with their crimes, but most still took responsibility for the events. The results were untraceable and the participants’ answers could not affect their cases or sentences, encouraging honest participation and truthful results.
When people face criminal charges, they are up against a system that is designed to produce convictions. People accused of crimes they did not commit might work with a criminal defense attorney to challenge police evidence and present a counter to prosecution narratives.