What are the most prevalent causes of wrongful conviction in Virginia?

Eyewitness mistakes, unreliable forensic evidence, misconduct and false confessions contribute to a significant number of wrongful convictions in Virginia.

Many people in Manassas have faith in the criminal justice system to accurately determine whether a person is innocent or guilty. Unfortunately, research shows that the wrongful conviction of innocent people isn't uncommon. Per the National Registry of Exonerations, over 1,800 people have been exonerated to date, and even more wrongful convictions may remain uncaught. Consequently, it is imperative for anyone facing criminal charges in Virginia to understand the most common causes of these convictions.

Witness Errors

Eyewitness testimony is often seen as highly reliable and persuasive, but this type of evidence isn't infallible. According to the Innocence Project, the human brain doesn't record and recall events with exact precision. An eyewitness's memories may be flawed, and they may become further distorted by external influences. For example, if authorities inadvertently hint that a person is the suspect, witnesses may be more inclined to pick that person out of a lineup and modify their memories accordingly.

In Virginia, eyewitness errors have played a role in over half of the wrongful convictions in which the victims were later exonerated. Per the National Registry of Exonerations, 23 of the state's 45 wrongful convictions have involved erroneous testimony from eyewitnesses.

Deliberate Misconduct

Many wrongful convictions may also involve negligence or misconduct on the part of witnesses or authorities, according to the Innocence Project. Some authorities may exaggerate the strength of the evidence against a person or use flawed tactics, such as coercion or suggestion, to obtain unreliable evidence. In other cases, false accusations or testimony from individuals such as informants may result in wrongful convictions.

These forms of misconduct have contributed to many wrongful convictions here in Virginia. The NRE database indicates that 23 of the state's 45 wrongful convictions involved official misconduct, while 20 involved perjury or false accusations.

Forensic Failings

Forensic analysis is often perceived as an objective and reliable source of evidence in cases involving alleged drug crimes, sexual offenses and other infractions that leave behind physical evidence. As a result, the use of flawed forensic evidence can greatly enhance the risk of an innocent person facing wrongful conviction. The Innocence Project explains that issues with forensic evidence may take the following forms:

  • Unreliability. A number of forensic techniques, such as hair microscopy and bite mark comparisons, haven't undergone rigorous scientific scrutiny. Therefore, these methods may not be highly accurate.
  • Overstatement of reliability. During trial, forensic analysts may present unvalidated forensic methods as reliable. Analysts also may misrepresent the meaning of forensic results to make this evidence appear stronger than it is.
  • Falsification. Less frequently, analysts may fabricate test results or suppress evidence that could help an accused person's case.

In Virginia, these various issues have been a factor in 11 wrongful convictions, which represent nearly one-quarter of all known wrongful convictions in the state.

Self-Incrimination

False confessions, which may be obtained through coercive or suggestive tactics, are also a frequent cause of wrongful convictions. Wrongly accused individuals may see confessing as a temporary solution to end an interrogation or secure release from custody. Unfortunately, a confession can be difficult to challenge in initial criminal justice proceedings or in appeals of criminal convictions. In Virginia, seven wrongful convictions have involved false confessions or other forms of self-incrimination.

Protecting You Against Unfounded Charges

To reduce the risk of a wrongful conviction involving any of these factors, people facing criminal charges in Virginia may certainly benefit from seeking the assistance of a defense attorney. An attorney may be able to help a person craft an effective defense or appeal a prior conviction by highlighting any issues with the underlying evidence.

Get A Free Consultation Today

If you are facing criminal charges or believe you were wrongfully convicted, contact me, lawyer Joseph Thelin. You can email my firm or call me direct at 703-659-0477. Conveniently located in Manassas, I serve clients in the surrounding communities.