Wrongful convictions pose a substantial threat in Tennessee

National data shows that wrongful convictions occur more often than many people may think, and they often involve various types of questionable evidence.

Many people in Nashville trust in the ability of the criminal justice system to separate the perpetrators of crimes from innocent individuals. Unfortunately, wrongful convictions aren't uncommon, and they often have devastating consequences. For example, according to The Tennessean, one Wilson County man served over 30 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of burglary and rape.

The overall number of wrongful convictions that occur in Tennessee and other parts of the U.S. isn't known. However, the available data suggests that wrongful conviction is a serious risk for anyone accused of misdemeanor or felony offenses.

Wrongful conviction data

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,700 people in the U.S. have been formally exonerated of wrongful criminal convictions. The number of exonerations made each year is also on the rise. USA Today reported in early 2015 that a record 125 exonerations were made in the U.S. in 2014. This increase does not necessarily indicate a rise in wrongful convictions. However, it does suggest that the number of wrongful convictions may be higher than previously realized.

National statistics show that wrongful convictions are a risk even when people have been accused of the most serious crimes. For example, 38 percent of the individuals who were exonerated in 2014 had been convicted of murder. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that the majority of exonerated individuals were accused of sex crimes or homicide.

Troublingly, wrongful conviction may even be a threat when no one has committed a crime. Incidents such as fires and accidental injuries may result in people facing charges such as arson, child abuse or murder. According to USA Today, in 46 percent of the convictions that were overturned in 2014, no crime had ever occurred.

Risk factors

These wrongful convictions may occur for various reasons, according to the Innocence Project. A number of wrongful convictions involve one or more of the following factors:

  • Eyewitness testimony. Research has proven that human memory is fallible and easily manipulated. Over 70 percent of the wrongful convictions that were proven false through DNA evidence involved eyewitness testimony.
  • Questionable or fraudulent forensic evidence. Mistakes, use of techniques that aren't scientifically validated and outright misconduct can produce inaccurate forensic evidence. Such evidence is a factor in 47 percent of wrongful convictions that were overturned based on DNA evidence.
  • Use of informants or snitches. These sources often have incentive to testify against a person, and jurors aren't always informed of these ulterior motives. A reported 15 percent of exonerations supported by DNA evidence have involved the use of this testimony.

False confessions, which occur in about one-quarter of wrongful convictions that are later overturned on the basis of DNA evidence, are another common issue. Wrongly accused people may give false confessions for various reasons, including coercion, confusion, fear or impaired mental states. Unfortunately, once a confession is elicited, a conviction often follows, even if other evidence is questionable.

Protecting against damaging outcomes

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, here in Tennessee, 11 people have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of criminal offenses. The number of these convictions that have not been formally exonerated may be higher. Disturbingly, an even greater number of wrongful convictions may go entirely uncaught.

It's important for anyone facing criminal charges in Tennessee to take the threat of wrongful conviction seriously and consider seeking legal help. An attorney may be able to assist a person in questioning potentially unreliable evidence or identifying other strategies for challenging criminal charges.