could you go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit?

The Problem

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)

The Solution:

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.

Made with Padlet



Works Cited:

“First DNA Exoneration.” Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Northwestern University,

“Gary Dotson.” Innocence Project, Innocence Project,

Wagner, Peter, and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017 | Prison Policy Initiative,

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,

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,


Shaer, Matthew. “The False Promise of DNA Testing.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 May 2016,

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Scottsboro Case.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Sept. 2017,


“William Barnhouse.” Innocence Project, Innocence Project,



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  1. April 27, 2018 by Trevor.Donovan

    This post was very interesting! I have actually studied a good amount about the hypocrisies of the criminal justice system, and agree with all of your conclusions. One more important factor that can result in misidentifications and wrongful convictions is if the suspect/accused is unable to pay for a lawyer. In America, the reality is that public defenders don’t get paid enough to be incentivized to win cases for their clients at all costs, and until this cost barrier is lowered so that everyone has a nearly equal chance of winning their case, the wrongful convictions of America’s poor will continue to be rampant.

  2. April 27, 2018 by Sasha.Zitter

    This was a really interesting read! According to your statistic, improper forensic science leads to about half of false convictions. Considering this, I am curious why we rely so heavily on it and if we have alternative options. This is also interesting to me because, with the rise of the #metoo movement, I have been wondering how to most respectfully balance never blaming the victim and not immediately jumping to a conclusion that the accused is guilty. Is it possible that certain people hold a power over others? One where they can lead someone to be wrongfully convicted of a crime? How can we as a society come up with the best way to both listen to the victim and the accused and make an informed decision? Thanks for writing this, Ethan. It was an interesting project!

  3. April 28, 2018 by izzy horio

    this was super super interesting to read; i can’t believe that up to 10% of people in prisons are innocent. that’s crazy. i took an english class at my school called crime and punishment, and we learned a little about prisons, and we read an article on how prisons in sweden have really great conditions and are more about reform than punishment. in the us we also don’t have enough lawyers; most people who can’t afford one are provided with an overworked attorney who can’t do their best to provide for their client, simply because they don’t have the time or resources. overall, your project was super interesting and i really hope that our society is able to improve the justice system.

  4. April 28, 2018 by Miza A. Ridzuan

    This project is very intriguing and taught me many things I didn’t know before! I actually thought about this problem before when I was watching Prison Break on Netflix, but I never researched about it further. I agree that the people that were proven to be wrongly imprisoned should definitely be compensated, as they lost the time to be with their loved ones and a future because of the crime that they didn’t commit. Thank you for sharing all this!

  5. April 29, 2018 by Portia McKoy

    Hi Ethan. I really enjoyed reading your project and learning way more about false convictions than I did before. It’s interesting to see that a numerous amount of people in the prison system are falsely accused even with the development of new technologies.The TedTalk that you presented was very informative and furthered your research in the prison system. I wonder what you think should be done for those who have lost time behind bars for a crime they did not commit. What should the government provide for them when they get out or are exonerated?

  6. April 29, 2018 by Jo Ann Chai

    Wow! This is such an interesting project! I love digging into things like this and you made it really simple for us all to see. Nice job!

  7. April 29, 2018 by Zain.Palanpur

    I really enjoyed reading through your presentation. I think you did a nice job with the page layout, that keeps the reader interested as they make their way through. I especially liked the examples you gave of people who had been falsely convicted. I think they did I good job creating a real-world connection in a way we can see truly how bad the problem is. I found it crazy that people who lose so many years of their life to false imprisonment get little to no compensation. Overall I really enjoyed reading through your project, great work!

  8. May 01, 2018 by Madeline.Burke

    This is a really interesting project considering that people don’t normally try to advocate for prisoners! I love that you are taking a look into an issue that I haven’t really seen addressed! How did you think of this idea?

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