Human Error in Wrongful Convictions

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 31 May 2013 | 0 Comments

On 31 January 2009, Manny Fernandez of the New York Times reported on "Examining Human Error in Wrongful Convictions".

An examination of wrongful convictions in New York City and around the state found that a number of wrongful convictions stemmed from an old phenomenon: human error. The report by the New York State Bar Association studied the cases of 53 men and women whose convictions were overturned, often after spending years, sometimes decades, in prison for murders, rapes and other crimes they did not commit.

It determined that the root causes of the convictions included errors by a prosecutor, judge or member of law enforcement, as well as the misidentification of the accused by victims or witnesses. The mishandling of forensic evidence and a reliance on false confessions from the accused or false testimony from jailhouse informants were also to blame. (Police in New York did not need to electronically record confessions).

In many of the 53 cases, several factors, not just one, played a role in the wrongful convictions. 31 cases involved errors by prosecutors, judges or law enforcement. The 53 cases read like "a litany of legal missteps".

The article outlines several case studies involving suppression of evidence by police and prosecutors, non-disclosure and lying by witnesses.

The report made a number of recommendations, including additional training for police, prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges, as well as changes in how police lineups were conducted. It also urged the state to provide financial aid and re-entry services for those who were exonerated.

The report came amidst criticism that New York had failed to do enough to prevent wrongful convictions. Several states had established Innocence Commissions but New York had not.

More research needs to be conducted here in Australia to identify the factors that are contributing to wrongful convictions at all levels of the system.

For fuller coverage of the New York Times article, see Bob Moles' Networked Knowledge USA webpage at

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