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Study: 10 Factors to Bar Wrongful Convictions

Professor Jon Gould

Professor Jon Gould seen in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jeff Watts.

A new research report from Professor Jon Gould and his team helps provide a more complete picture of wrongful conviction in the United States by identifying 10 factors that point to systemic failure in the criminal justice system.

Using sophisticated social science methods, the team examined 460 erroneous conviction and near miss cases to determine the conditions that help explain why an innocent defendant, once indicted, ends up convicted rather than released. The Preventing Wrongful Convictions Project began in 2010 and was funded by the National Institute of Justice.

For more than 20 years, the NIJ has been studying wrongful convictions in the United States. Most of that work has been anecdotal or based on select case studies. This research has been helpful in understanding some of the factors that go into erroneous convictions, but it was by no means comprehensive.

WATCH: NIJ Interview with Jon Gould on Erroneous Convictions

The new study stands out in criminal justice research because it was large-scale, employed a variety of analytic processes, and included a number of stakeholders that rarely work together, including the Police Foundation, the National District Attorneys Association, and the Innocence Project. That cooperation between often opposing groups was crucial to the success of the study, Gould said.

In his study, "Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice," the School of Public Affairs professor outlined 10 factors that led to the wrongful conviction of defendants who were factually innocent:

  • Weak evidence by the prosecution
  • Weak defense (including the use of family witnesses)
  • Prosecution withholding exculpatory evidence
  • Forensic error
  • Inadvertent misidentification by an eyewitness
  • Lying by a non-witness
  • Youth of a defendant
  • Any criminal history by the defendant
  • Punitiveness of the state
  • Brady violations

Gould’s study also identified the effect of "tunnel vision" in erroneous convictions. In instances of tunnel vision, one small fact gets all the attention. Prosecutors or police become too attached to a particular fact and thus are unable to see the weaknesses present in the case.

Gould’s research found that tunnel vision, as well as the aforementioned factors, are indicators of systemic failure with regard to wrongful convictions.

"This shows that the perfect storm of errors together can lead to erroneous convictions," Gould said. "The more factors you have present in a case, the more likely you’ll see a wrongful conviction."

Ideally, Gould said, his research would be used by the NIJ to reform criminal justice policy and train prosecutors and police. Specifically, Gould would like to see changes including earlier forensic testing, videotaped interrogations, and veteran prosecutors making charging decisions to help prevent wrongful convictions.

He would also like to see a review process in place when things go wrong in the criminal justice system. Unlike the transportation and medical fields, which have processes in place to review mistakes after they happen, there is no equivalent system in criminal court.

"Police and prosecutors are resistant to identify error because they’re afraid of getting sued," Gould said.

The changes Gould would like to see put in place are inexpensive to implement, but would require cultural changes on the part of police and prosecutors.

"We can at least study what went wrong to prevent it from happening in the future," he said. "When police and prosecutors are open to learning from errors, then we have a response we all want."