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Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice

NCJ Number
Date Published
December 2012
434 pages
This study identifies factors that are uniquely present in cases that result in the acquittal or dismissal of charges against the innocent defendant (so-called "near misses") which are not present in cases that lead to erroneous convictions of the innocent in an effort to identify policy interventions that can prevent future erroneous convictions.
The study employed a mixed methods approach, involving both quantitative and qualitative analysis. The authors identified 460 erroneous conviction and "near miss" cases that met a stringent definition of innocence, then researched and coded the cases along a number of variables, including location effects, nature of the victim, nature of the defendant, facts available, quality of work by the justice system, and quality of work by the defense. The cases were analyzed using bivariate and logistic regression techniques. With the assistance of an expert panel, the cases were explored from a qualitative perspective. The results indicate that 10 factors - the age and criminal history of the defendant, the punitiveness of the state, Brady violations, forensic error, weak defense and prosecution case, a family defense witness, an inadvertent misidentification, and lying by a non-eyewitness - help explain why an innocent defendant, once indicted, ends up erroneously convicted rather than released. Factors traditionally suggested as sources of erroneous convictions (i.e. false confessions, criminal justice official error, and race effects) appear in statistically similar rates in both sets of cases; thus, they likely increase the chance that an innocent suspect will be indicted but not convicted. The qualitative review reveals how the statistically significant factors are connected and exacerbated by tunnel vision, which prevents the system from self-correcting once an error is made and explains larger, system-wide failures that separate erroneous convictions from near misses. Among the policy implications of the findings is that increased attention to the failing dynamics of the justice system, rather than simply isolated errors or causes, may lead to better prevention of erroneous convictions. Results suggest that there should be greater emphasis, and continued research, within the justice system to analyze and learn from mistakes before they result in miscarriages of justice.

Date Published: December 1, 2012