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Researchers pinpoint common factors in erroneous convictions

Wrongful criminal convictions and airplane crashes.

Although the nexus between those two outcomes is obviously anything but intuitive, the connection is raised by the lead researcher and author of a recently released and government-funded study asking this central question: Are there recurring factors that can be pointed to that help to predict when a wrongful conviction might likely occur in a criminal prosecution?

Indeed, there are, says research scientist Jay Gould, who further clarifies the logic of linking bad criminal justice outcomes with aeronautics disasters.

Here's the connection, which lies in a dichotomy: Whereas plane crashes are routinely and painstakingly investigated by national safety bodies in their aftermath in order to reconstruct underlying problems and prevent reoccurrences, "wrongful convictions have not often been investigated beyond case studies."

The result of that, according to the research of Gould and others who analyzed the case records of 460 wrongful convictions, is that similar prosecutorial and police mistakes occur repeatedly and virtually guarantee wrong outcomes for many defendants in future cases.

In other words, there is not a similar learning from the past, which can harm defendants facing charges ranging from drug conspiracy and computer fraud to child pornography and hate crimes.

What researchers from American University have done is to identify a number of factors that they say commonly underlie wrongful convictions. Knowing them, says Gould, and understanding their propensity to creep into interrogations and investigations, might help prosecutors and police officers better avoid the "tunnel vision" that can bring about a wrong result.

Included among the identified factors are these: the withholding of evidence that establishes the credibility of a defendant or undercuts that of a witness; errors in forensic evidence (e.g., DNA, blood tests, ballistics); bias against a defendant owing to an existing criminal record; and lying by persons who were not eyewitnesses to an alleged crime.

Source: The National Law Journal, "Study reveals 10 factors common in wrongful convictions," March 12, 2013

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