The American Judicial Process: Wrongful Convictions
Many people all over the world assume that the judicial systems in their countries are far from being perfect. This explains why every year thousands of innocent people fall victims of the judicial system. Americans are no exception. The American judicial process is by far and wide considered as one of the most advanced and fair judicial systems in the world. This could be attributed to its carefully ordered and balanced hierarchy that ensures successful operation in a diverse and large country such as the United States is (Huff, 2004). Nevertheless, just like any other judicial system in the world, the American system has often been marred by claims of police abuse, racism, covering up mistakes, and wrongful conviction among others. This paper sets to analyze the issue of wrongful conviction in the American judicial system. It examines the historical, current and the possible scope of wrongful conviction in the United States judicial process.
Many Americans believe that the American judicial process is just. Within that belief, the main assumption is that no individual is liable to conviction for a crime that they never committed (Marquis, 2005). This means that a free person is to be treated judiciously and cannot be unjustly executed or sentenced to imprisonment. Indeed, all people living in America are afforded the due constitutional right to a fair trial irrespective of whether they are American citizens or not (Huff, 2004). In that case, the state has the responsibility of proving beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of a certain crime. The due judicial process has to be followed and the defendant given a fair hearing. This ensures that the innocent are protected, not convicted anyhow, cultivating an attitude of faith in the judicial process (Givelber 2005). As a result, the system is deemed to be impartial hence only the guilty are to be punished. The innocent people will, therefore, have nothing to fear. Unfortunately, the American judicial system has been plagued with police abuse, discrimination, substandard lawyering, negligence, false confessions, improper and unfounded forensic science, misidentification of eyewitnesses, and government misconduct (Huff, 2004). This, in turn, has led to many wrongful convictions. Many innocent people have found themselves in jail for crimes they did not commit. In the process, the social fabric that binds the people is threatened, and democratic republicanism is no longer relevant. In fact, the basic concept of the American judicial system is that a wrong has a cause, that such a cause is preventable, and that an injurious act warrants compensation to the victim and punishment for the offender (Leo & Gould, 2009). Therefore, to address and rectify the problem of wrongful convictions, we have to understand the fact that it represents a dynamic relationship between the observers and defendants; not merely the cause and effect relationship.
Although the American judicial process has been lauded in many parts of the world, wrongful convictions are indicators that there are cracks that need to be filled. This need raises three fundamental questions:
What causes wrongful convictions?
What is the relationship between wrongful convictions and the American judicial system?
How can the problem of wrongful convictions be addressed?
Wrongful convictions are dependent on historical contexts. For a long time, many innocent people have been wrongfully convicted. Although it is a bit difficult to determine the exact number of wrongful convictions that have taken place over the years, research reveals that the number of wrongfully convicted individuals in America has steadily increased over the last thirty years (Taylor, 2015). Historical facts show that it was only after 1932 when a Yale University scholar, Professor Edward Borchard, published his book entitled Convicting the Innocent'(Leo & Gould, 2009). This demonstrates that no scholar had seriously thought about wrongful convictions before then. The fact that Professor Borchard was able to collect sixty-five cases of wrongful convictions proves that the problem was existent but did not get any attention. Subsequently, very many wrongful conviction case studies were conducted and findings published, but the attention given to such findings was still at its bare minimum (Huff, 2004). This is a historical injustice that represents a problem within the judicial process in America. Incidentally, the general public, law enforcers, and legislators were initially ignorant of the seriousness of the matter. They remained unconvinced until two scholars, Bedau and Radelet published an article in 1987 which exposed 350 wrongful cases, some of which had led to the execution of innocent people (Leo & Gould, 2009). This marked the beginning of a new dawn, with the general public waking up to the harsh reality of wrongful convictions. The subsequent introduction of DNA testing in the judicial system and the consequent exoneration of one Gary Dotson led to the initiation of the contemporary innocence revolution that has seen the overturning of over three hundred wrongful convictions (Taylor, 2015). Nevertheless, wrongful convictions have continued to take place despite such a movement. History has kept on repeating itself.
Although there are no exact statistics on wrongful convictions in the United States, current research estimates that over seven thousand people are convicted wrongfully every year (Taylor, 2015). The lack of exact statistics may be attributed to the fact that it is rather difficult to trace the historical trend of wrongful convictions since most scholars mainly rely on exonerations. Thanks to the advancement in the DNA technology, there have been numerous exonerations cases. A recent study conducted by Taylor (2015) demonstrates that the numerous exonerations are an indication that the aspect of wrongful conviction has been on the rise. In 2010, the correctional facilities in the United States held over seven million offenders, and this was attributed to the criminalizing of non-violent crime as authorities sought to enforce the drug war policies (Taylor, 2015). Notably, the criminalization of non-violent crime led to the increase in the probability of wrongful conviction. Nevertheless, some of those who were wrongfully convicted may have found their way into exoneration. The problem here, however, is that post-conviction exoneration does not help since the conviction is already wrongful in the first place. It cannot be reversed. The convict has already been convicted and imprisoned. Therefore, wrongful conviction is a kind of a byproduct of the historical indifference towards offenders and the ostensible public faith in the judicial process. It is indeed a consequence of the normal operations of a chaotic judicial system. As an independent variable, history is what determines the magnitude of wrongful convictions in the United States. The information herein validates the hypothesis that there is a likelihood of wrongful conviction as a result of historical contexts and injustices.
The second independent variable is race. Wrongful conviction the United States is largely dependent on one's race. In the contemporary courtroom, an African-American is more likely to suffer a wrongful conviction than their white counterpart. Research shows that a majority of death row inmates who have been exonerated over the years, for instance, are African-Americans (Taylor, 2015). Of course, the exoneration comes long after a wrongful conviction. The victim has already suffered enough and wasted substantial time in jail. The racial disparity is often the result of racial stereotypes that are embedded in the perception that an African-American is more prone to crime than a white (Huff, 2004). This is compounded by the misidentification of crime perpetrators. This has become a major social problem with scholars speculating that the American judicial process disproportionally targets African-Americans. Since 1930, for example, almost 90% of offenders who were executed for convictions of rape were African-Americans (Zalman, Larson, & Smith 2012). The higher the number, the higher the chances of wrongful convictions. Scholars have often argued that there is a high likelihood of prosecutors moving on with comparatively weak cases against African-American defendants thus increasing the probability of wrongful conviction. A non-Caucasian defendant, for example, is commonly convicted for having murdered a Caucasian based on evidence that is significantly less than in a similar case involving a Caucasian defendant. This has led to wrongful convictions, and consequently, very many African-Americans have found themselves in prison for crimes that they never committed. Research shows that the number of African-American defendants who are exonerated from capital offenses is six times more than that of Caucasian defendants (Jackiw, Arbuthnott, Pfeifer, Marcon, &, Meissner 2008). This is an indication that, during the initial trials, African-American defendants are highly likely to be subjected to wrongful conviction.
It is unfortunate that African Americans are wrongly labeled. According to the labeling theory, the audience labels a person as a criminal although the opposite may be true (Zalman, Larson, & Smith, 2012). African-Americans are not largely likely to be criminals, but the society labels them so on the basis of their color. This is racial discrimination that has continued to eat into the American society. Accordingly, the hypothesis that one is more likely to be wrongfully convicted if they are black is further strengthened by the labeling theory. Before the advent of forensic science, convictions relied heavily on eyewitnesses thus leading to a big number of wrongful convictions resulting from eyewitness misidentification. An analysis of the first one hundred and thirty cases of post-conviction DNA exoneration revealed that 78% of the initial wrongful convictions were a result of eyewitness misidentification (Jackiw, Arbuthnott, Pfeifer, Marcon, &, Meissner 2008). This may be attributed to the often incomplete and inaccurate recollection of events by observers. Unfortunately, the recollection was often accorded more weight thus leading to wrongful convictions. It is important to note that preconceived notions about the African-American community often shows the informal reasoning that makes the observer argue from the point of ignorance. In the case of a Caucasian witness or victim attempting to identify an African-American defendant, for example, they are likely to fill in what probably happened as they try to make sense of the event. Consequently, more African-Americans are likely to continue suffering wrongful convictions due to the aspect of cross-racial misidentification.
Additionally, the socio-economic status of African Americans put them at a higher risk of wrongful convictions as compared to their white counterparts. In 2011, over a quarter of African Americans lived in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Consequently, most of these African-Americans cannot afford the services of a private attorney thus increasing the likelihood of wrongful conviction. Approximately 13% of the total population in the United States is made up of African-Americans which form about 30% of the American prison community (Taylor, 2015). Considering such statistics, it goes without saying that African-Americans are perceived to be more deviant, and this biased opinion seems to have crept into the American judicial system. Police brutality is also witnessed to be more common among the blacks than the whites. The American police are very brutal when dealing with blacks. This notion that blacks are more likely to be deviant is one of the major contributors to wrongful convictions within the American judicial process. Information about the high likelihood of an African-American being wrongly convicted proves the second hypothesis that a person is highly likely to be wrongfully convicted on the basis of their race. When the dependent variable, wrongful convictions, is tested against the independent variable, color or race, it confirms the hypothetical statement. Wrongful convictions highly depend on the race or color of the convicted individual.
Racial prejudice and profiling have been an issue of concern in America for a very long time. I would use primary data from the public, the relevant news and academic articles to prove this point. An empirical study into this issue with regards to the American judicial process, however, could either prove or reject my second hypothesis which states that one is likely to be wrongly convicted on the basis of their color. The hypothesis may be proved considering that racial discrimination began long ago, with the advent of slavery, centuries ago, when the blacks were slaves for the whites. Despite the abolition of slave trade, the blacks have continued to be looked down upon by the whites, especially in America (Jackiw, Arbuthnott, Pfeifer, Marcon, &, Meissner, 2008). Empirical data may prove that the American judicial system has often been unconsciously unfair when dealing with cases involving African-Americans. However, my hypothesis may also be rejected if experimental data proves that the American judicial process is impartial and just.
The availability of alternative explanations for the wrongful convictions phenomenon in the American judicial system would be a welcome move. Researchers need to make careful considerations since the information available on the issue is rather limited. It is difficult to determine a wrongful conviction in good time since one has to rely on cases of post-conviction exonerations. This poses a challenge since there are many cases where the prisoner serves their term to the end despite having been wrongfully convicted. This is a limitation that future researchers need to put into consideration. Although advocacy agencies have been pushing for a forensic re-examination of the convictions that were made before the advent of forensic and DNA technology, the process is not as easy as it seems (Leon-Guerrero, 2011). So much needs to be considered since policy makers have to be pushed to first improve oversight and legislation in regard to the judicial process. It is important to note that a deeper insight into wrongful convictions can reveal much more, the limitations notwithstanding.
In summary, it is important to recognize the fact that wrongful conviction is traumatizing and an abuse of human rights. The historical context of wrongful convictions should not be an excuse to subject an innocent person to untold suffering. It is no longer ideal to assume that the judicial system, in which many Americans have faith in any way, is purely fair and just. Some of the convictions need to be questioned early enough to save an innocent person from suffering. Racial discrimination should never inform the decision of a court ruling. Although a number of policies have been implemented to promote impartiality in the judicial system, there are still some rogue judges who base their conviction on the color of the suspect. The notion that African-Americans are more likely to engage in crime is unfair and inhuman. However, with adequate research into the issue, wrongful convictions may ultimately become a thing of the past. Therefore, future researchers should delve more into the causes of wrongful convictions, the parties involved and recommend ways of preventing and curbing the vice.
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Huff, C. Ronald. 2004. Wrongful Convictions: The American Experience. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 46(2): 107-120.
Jackiw, L. B., Arbuthnott, K. D., Pfeifer, J. E., Marcon, J. L., and Meissner, C. A. 2008. Examining the Cross-Race Effect in Lineup Identification Using Caucasian and First Nations Samples. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 40(1): 52-57.
Leo, Richard. A. and Gould, Jon. B. 2009. Studying Wrongful Convictions: Learning from Social Science. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 7(7): 7-30.
Leon-Guerrero, Anna. 2011. Social Problems: Community, Policy, and Social Action (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Marquis, Joshua. 2005. The Myth of Innocence. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 95(2): 501-521.
Taylor George, C. 2015. Wrongful Convictions and Due Process Violations. Law Enforcement Executive Forum 15(4). http://dx.doi.org/10.19151/leef.2015.1504f
U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). Current Population Reports: Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Zalman, Marvin, Larson, Matthew. J., and Smith, Brad. (2012). Citizens Attitudes toward Wrongful Convictions. Criminal Justice Review 37(1): 51-69. doi: 10.1177/0734016811428374
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