In a time where DNA evidence and magnetic fingerprinting lead forensic investigations, it is hard to believe that the National Registry of Exonerations observed that 149 people were exonerated for wrongful convictions in 2015. Wrongful conviction is classified as a person being accused of a crime when they are in fact innocent. However these mishaps are not new, as similar incidents date back all the way to the Salem Witch Trials and even the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Seen in more recent news however, is wrongful conviction portrayed through entertainment with the Netflix original show “Making A Murderer.” Based on the case against Steven Avery, it explores his two decades of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit and then being tried again for a new accusation made against him.
Among the many intricacies of the show, like speculative evidence and a corrupt police department, the show still manages to clarify that wrongful conviction is a growing reality in the American justice system.
Time and time again there are people being convicted as murderers, rapists, potential terrorists, and even carjackers based on little to no evidence. According to The Crime Report, experts believe thousands of people each year are wrongfully convicted of second-tier crimes like robbery and burglary.
What leads to a wrongful conviction unfortunately includes many factors up for error in the hands of police and witnesses. For instance, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that, in terms of death row cases, the leading mistakes are eyewitness errors, government misconduct, mishandled evidence, false confessions, and what is classified as “other” like hearsay.
It’s easy to pass off these mistakes on an imperfect judicial system. Although the judicial system’s goal is to minimize damage, it is still prone to mishaps and faults. However, in our perfectly imperfect society, wrongful conviction manages to play the race card as well.
In January 2016, Brock Turner, a student at Stanford University was arrested and confessed to raping and sexually assaulting a woman on campus. Even though Turner was indicted on five charges and found guilty of three, he was sentenced to only six months in Santa Clara County jail followed by three years of probation and other formalities like registering as a sex offender.
Because the judge believed a jail sentence would have a “severe impact,” Turner got off easy and benefited from his status.
In comparison, Brian Banks, a former African American football star was wrongfully convicted of rape but served five years in prison. Being the lucky one of those who are wrongfully convicted, Banks was exonerated in May of 2012. However, the recurring theme of race and the judicial system is also seen in wrongful convictions. Of 297 DNA exonerations, 70 percent were minorities who were proven innocent. Moreover, African Americans represent 63 percent of those exonerations according to the Innocence Project.
Consequently, wrongful conviction is not only damaging to the lives of the people affected by it but it also impairs people’s faith in the legal process. It is becoming easier to identify the injustice seen in the systems we are meant to trust rather than appreciate them for their purpose. Countless times in the American judicial system wrongful conviction becomes not only a case of civic debt but ultimately one that deals with race and privilege.