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Matthew Radefeld & Dan Juengel
Matthew A. Radefeld and Daniel A. Juengel

What are the leading causes of wrongful convictions?

On Behalf of | Jul 26, 2023 | Criminal Law |

Since 1991, 54 individuals have been exonerated in Missouri for crimes they did not commit. Some served decades behind bars. In most cases, mistaken witness identification, false accusations, perjury or official misconduct led to bogus arrests and convictions. DNA evidence was used to prove innocence in nearly a third of these cases.

The Innocence Project tracked 375 DNA exonerations in the U.S. from 1989 to 2020, with 21 exonerees sentenced to death when their cases were overturned. The nonprofit says hundreds of clients they have represented have collectively lost over 3,800 years of their lives to wrongful incarceration.

Two Missouri men released after decades in prison

While each of the 54 cases detailed by the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations destroyed lives and families, two recent cases illustrate the harm caused by wrongful convictions:

Kevin Strickland: In 1979, an all-white jury took less than an hour to convict the African American teenager despite no physical evidence linking him to the murders of three people. An eyewitness falsely identified Strickland but later tried to recant her testimony. In November 2021, a judge overturned Strickland’s conviction after he had served 42 years in prison, making it the longest wrongful conviction case in Missouri history.

Lamar Johnson: After spending nearly 30 years in prison, Johnson was freed by a St. Louis judge this past February after finding clear and convincing evidence that he was innocent. Johnson was wrongly convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of his friend in 1994. Another man admitted to killing Marcus Boyd last December. A Conviction Integrity Unit identified misconduct by the lead detective and constitutional errors during Johnson’s 1995 trial.

Of the other 52 cases detailed in the registry, wrongfully convicted individuals in Missouri served a few months to several decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. Nationally, over 60% of these cases involve African Americans.

A conviction is not always the end of a criminal case

Exonerations have risen rapidly across Missouri and the rest of the U.S. over the past three decades, mainly due to advances in DNA evidence and other defense technologies. These tools help experienced criminal defense attorneys protect those wrongfully convicted due to eyewitness mistakes, false accusations, police and prosecutorial misconduct and flawed forensics, also called “junk science.” Lawyers specializing in these cases thoroughly review the evidence and can determine whether someone is eligible for a new trial, or they can file an appeal to have a conviction overturned.