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Some common causes of wrongful convictions: Part I

Since it was founded in the early 1990s, the Innocence Project has helped free hundreds of wrongfully convicted Americans (approximately 329 so far, to be more precise). Many of these wrongful convictions were overturned with the help of DNA testing. As a byproduct of exonerating innocent men and women, the Innocence Project has been compiling data on the most frequent causes of wrongful conviction.

Two of these causes include eyewitness error/misidentification and false confessions. In today's post, we'll discuss how these two problems continue to plague the criminal justice system here in Colorado and around the country.

Eyewitness testimony used to be considered rock-solid evidence most of the time. But many studies have revealed that human memory is very fallible and susceptible to influence. The news of late has been full of examples where several eyewitnesses observed the same crime but all had a different version of what happened - none of which were consistent with security camera footage.

To be sure, eyewitness testimony can be useful, but juries need to understand the shortcomings of evidence provided by eyewitnesses. They also need to understand that such memories can be biased by police officers and investigators (intentionally or unintentionally).

False confessions are also a major cause of wrongful convictions. Who would confess to a crime they didn't commit? As it turns out, many people would under the right circumstances. Interrogations can last hours and may become hostile or even violent. If police are grilling suspects who are young, cognitively disabled, drunk/high or who just don't understand their rights (including the right to have an attorney with them), these suspects may eventually give in to the pressure and offer a false confession.

To make matters worse, police/investigators will often record video and/or audio of the supposed "confessions," but not the hours of interrogation leading up to it. Because of this, the confession may appear to be voluntary.

There are solutions to these two problems - or at least ways to reduce the likelihood that they will result in a wrongful conviction. Please check back next week as we discuss how one state is working to enact legal changes regarding eyewitness identification and suspect interrogation.

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