Prison. It’s a place for criminals, murderers, drug dealers, and thieves, right? Unfortunately, that is not true. It is estimated that between one and ten percent of the prison population is innocent. (Krieger) To put that in perspective, based on current estimates of the U.S. prison population, this means that between 22,000 and 220,000 people are victims of false convictions. When or if these people are freed, they often receive little or no compensation for the years they lost behind bars. (Mandery)
In 7th Grade History, we did a project in which we had to choose a historical figure to research and present on. I chose Dorothea Dix, a famous prison reformer. I was surprised to discover the terrible condition our prisons were in and still are, and this piqued my interest in the prison system. While watching 13th, I was reminded of my interest in the topic. Initially, I planned to research prison reform, but I decided on false convictions because of the significant role they played in 13th.
The issue of false convictions has plagued the United States throughout its history. Even before the founding of our country, 19 innocent women were hanged and countless others imprisoned during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Another miscarriage of justice was the case of the Scottsboro Boys, in which nine African American boys were falsely accused of raping two white women. Although doctors testified that there was no physical evidence of rape, the boys were convicted based on the women’s testimonies. The boys were later exonerated at different times and one of the women admitted to fabricating the story. (Encyclopedia Britannica) Although this took place in 1931, much of what occurred in this case still happens today.
The advancement of science and technology made it possible to use DNA tests to determine who the culprit was. This method was first used in an exoneration in 1989. On July 9, 1977, Cathleen Crowell reported to police that she had been raped by three men near a mall in Chicago, Illinois. Five days later, she identified 22 year old, high school dropout, Gary Dotson as the man who committed a crime that never took place. On top of this false accusation, police pressured Crowell to identify Dotson out of a lineup because he “most closely resembled the composite sketch” (Northwestern University). Although Dotson had an alibi, and multiple people who corroborated it, he was still convicted and sentenced to serve 25-50 years in prison for rape and 25-50 years for aggravated kidnapping (Northwestern University). Dotson was convicted based on a perjured testimony from Crowell and police as well as prosecutorial misconduct. In 1988, Dotson’s lawyer had a DNA test called RFLP done in England, but due to the fact the sample was old and in poor condition, the results were inconclusive (Innocence Project). After this, they decided to try a new DNA test called PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), a method that worked on damaged samples. This test ruled out Dotson as being the rapist (Innocence Project). In August 1989, after serving ten years in prison, Gary Dotson became the first person to be exonerated based on DNA evidence.
In 2017, William Barnhouse was exonerated after spending 25 years behind bars. He was accused and convicted of raping a woman behind a vacant building in 1992. Barnhouse was in the area and matched the description given by the victim. She identified him, in the middle of the night under the light of a police officer’s flashlight, as the man who raped her. During the trial, the prosecution presented DNA evidence, that either proved nothing or was incorrect, as well as the witness’s testimony. While Barnhouse was exonerated using DNA testing, he, like the Scottsboro Boys and Gary Dotson, was convicted of sexual assault based on the victim’s testimony. As you can see from these examples, although much time has passed, the issue of wrongful conviction remains largely the same.
Why Does This Happen?
While there are numerous contributing factors to a wrongful conviction, the most common are displayed below:
All the cases mentioned above included eyewitness misidentification (purposeful or accidental), the most common cause of false convictions. In the case of the Scottsboro Boys, the cause was “eyewitness misidentification” or more specifically, perjured testimony (meaning the witness lied under oath). Similarly, the main cause of Barnhouse’s conviction was eyewitness misidentification, but also improper forensic science, an issue still prevalent today. Although the primary evidence presented against him was the woman’s testimony, they also presented “DNA evidence.” The DNA test they ran could neither prove nor disprove that it was Barnhouse. In other words, it could not eliminate him as a suspect. They also claimed that hair found on the victim directly matched his hair, a fact which was later proven to be incorrect. In fact, in 2013 the FBI reported that a testimony “asserting that microscopic hair comparison could produce a “match” was scientifically invalid.” (Innocence Project)
While DNA testing is a useful tool, its accuracy is often exaggerated by media. Its efficacy is directly correlated to the skill and training of the technician handling the sample. In 2002, CBS News investigated the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory which handles roughly 500 DNA related cases a year. According to attorney and criminology professor William Thompson, the lab technicians there “routinely misinterpreted even the simplest of samples” (Shaer). These routine misinterpretations resulted in a young man named Josiah Sutton being falsely convicted of rape. It was later found that the lab technician failed to even match three samples from the same person! (Shaer) Although DNA testing can be an extremely helpful tool, it is by no means perfect.
This video details how one man helps free victims of false convictions and speaks about the phenomena of false confessions:
The issue of false convictions raises other issues such as whether to repay people for their time behind bars. In 21 out of 50 states, victims of wrongful conviction are not entitled to repayment for time lost and are also on the hook for the cost of any counseling and medical services they need after imprisonment. (Mandery)
DNA testing has become a reliable way to exonerate people who are wrongfully convicted. Since August 1989, when Gary Dotson was exonerated using DNA evidence, it has played an integral role in the exoneration of at least 354 people, 20 of whom were on death row (Innocence Project). DNA testing has helped and will continue to help many people post-conviction, but how can we prevent false convictions from happening in the first place?
Through my research, I have found the main factors that result in false convictions are false confessions, improper forensic science/analysis, and eyewitness misidentification.
To reduce false confessions, Rob Warden suggests the recording of interrogations, a limit on the duration of an interrogation, and finally restricting police from lying to suspects. I think that the combination of these three things would drastically reduce the number of false confessions.
Second is improper forensic science/analysis often due to human error. The data is frequently misinterpreted. This is important because it means the issue is with the people running the tests, not the test itself. (Shaer) This leads me to believe that the best way to remedy this issue is improved training for lab technicians, as well as specialized training for those handling DNA samples. I think this would help improve the accuracy of DNA testing which, in turn, would help prevent false convictions and also prosecute the guilty.
Finally, the vast majority of false convictions are due to eyewitness misidentification. Unless prosecuting attorneys stopped using eyewitnesses, which would help far more guilty people than innocent, there is no real way I can think of to prevent eyewitness misidentification. That being said, we can do a lot more to compensate those people who are wrongfully convicted. In many states, victims of false convictions are not entitled to any compensation. While they could choose to sue the state, they most often fail, leading to the loss of even more money. To remedy this, I would propose that the states pass a statute that would force the government to pay a minimum of $51,000 (The average yearly household income in the U.S.A.) to the victim for every year they were in prison. Along with this, the government would pay for any required counseling or other medical services needed that were caused by their imprisonment. An added benefit of this solution is that states would be more careful who they put in prison because they are now liable if that person is innocent.
Now that I have presented my project to you, I welcome any constructive feedback or helpful thoughts on how we can address wrongful convictions in the U.S. Please feel free to leave comments and other solutions to this issue on the attached Padlet.
“First DNA Exoneration.” Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Northwestern University, www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/il/gary-dotson.html.
“Gary Dotson.” Innocence Project, Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org/cases/gary-dotson/.
Wagner, Peter, and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017 | Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html.
Krieger, Steven A. “Why Our Justice System Convicts Innocent People, and the Challenges Faced by Innocence Projects Trying to Exonerate Them.” New Criminal Law Review: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, 2011, pp. 333–402. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nclr.2011.14.3.333.
Mandery, Evan J., et al. “COMPENSATION STATUTES AND POSTEXONERATION OFFENDING.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), vol. 103, no. 2, 2013, pp. 553–583. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43895627.
Shaer, Matthew. “The False Promise of DNA Testing.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 May 2016, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/a-reasonable-doubt/480747/.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Scottsboro Case.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Sept. 2017, www.britannica.com/event/Scottsboro-case.
“William Barnhouse.” Innocence Project, Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org/cases/william-barnhouse/.