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Threat of wrongful conviction looms large for criminal defendants

Wrongful convictions may be high on a person's mind when they are charged with a crime in Texas. While many people grow up with a belief in the fairness of the criminal justice system, that belief can be easily challenged through firsthand experience or by learning about some of the prominent cases of wrongful conviction that have taken place. Some exonerations make major news, especially when DNA is used to show that a person convicted years ago of a serious crime like rape or murder is actually innocent. However, most wrongful convictions to not attract the level of attention given to these key cases.

In capital cases, including rape and murder cases, there is an approximately 3 to 5 percent rate of wrongful convictions. A criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania researched the rate of wrongful convictions for other criminal charges, from assault and armed robbery to theft or drug possession. These types of cases rarely involve in-depth DNA analyses or the types of lengthy sentences that make the news. In the study, the criminologists surveyed 3,000 Pennsylvania state prisoners about whether their conviction was wrongful. Contrary to beliefs that all prisoners claim they are innocent, approximately 6 percent of the respondents reported being wrongfully convicted.

The researchers noted that the estimate could still be high, and they warned that if the 6 percent figure was incorrect, the real number was likely to be lower rather than higher. However, they noted that prisoners were often reliable sources about their own criminal involvement, and after conviction, the vast majority of prisoners took responsibility for some role in the crime for which they were convicted.

The potential of a wrongful conviction underlines the importance of legal representation during any criminal case. A criminal defense lawyer may be able to present a strong defense for their client, challenging dubious evidence, unreliable witness testimony or problematic police practices.

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