The California Innocence Project investigates cases of wrongful conviction and looks for new, strong evidence of innocence. During our investigation and litigation phases, we and our clients encounter several issues that arise during the initial police investigation, during the trial, or during post-conviction proceeding. All issues point to flaws in the criminal justice system and reforms are needed and available to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring.
When a crime is reported, the initial police investigation is crucial to determining who the suspect or perpetrator is. The failure of law enforcement to conduct an adequate investigation can lead to a wrongfully accused person. Once a wrongful accusation has been made, the error may or may not be discovered before a conviction takes place.
The leading cause of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. The conditions under which the witness observed the events taking place can lead to an inaccurate description of the suspect. In addition, the incorrect administration of an eyewitness identification procedure can also lead to the wrong person being picked. For example, a witness may identify the suspect as the person they saw using a six-pack photo lineup but the photos of the non-suspect do not match the description given by the witness.
False confessions can also play a role. Police must use proper techniques when interrogating a suspect or witness. For example, interrogating a suspect for several hours straight or verbally abusing a suspect during questioning can cause a person to sign a false confession. Additionally, a witness may intentionally or unintentionally give false information to police, leading to a person being wrongfully accused.
Forensic science also plays a key role during police investigations. Failure to properly secure or investigate a crime scene can lead to the destruction or non-collection of key forensic evidence that can provide clues as to who committed the crime. For example, if DNA evidence is not collected, collected improperly, or stored improperly, then the inmate will have difficulty using post-conviction DNA testing years later to prove their innocence.
At trial, one of the causes of wrongful convictions may be present. During their investigation, innocence projects often look for evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel. To adequately prepare for a trial, defense counsel should properly investigate the case and explore all avenues where there may be evidence of innocence. However, in cases of ineffective assistance of counsel, trial counsel may fail to investigate witnesses that could provide an alibi for their client, investigate information as to who the real perpetrator is, or analyze forensic evidence found at the scene.
Wrongfully convicted clients may have also faced prosecutorial misconduct during trial. A common example found in exonerations is the prosecution’s failure to turn over evidence of innocence to defense counsel, or a Brady material violation. The undisclosed evidence is often police reports or witness statements supporting a claim of innocence that had never been turned over to the inmate or defense counsel.
Post Conviction Proceedings
During post-conviction investigation and proceedings, innocence projects face several issues unique to wrongful convictions.
Advances in forensic science research has played an increasingly bigger role in exonerations, in both the DNA and non-DNA evidence. Advances in science have resulted in the ability to conduct DNA testing on evidence that was not previously possible. The development of different types of testing such as mitochondrial DNA testing and Y-DNA testing have also expanded the ability of projects to prove innocence. Innocence projects would like more access to CODIS, the national database containing DNA profiles of state and federal inmates. The ability to compare unknown DNA profiles from crime scenes with those in the database can definitively prove who the real perpetrator is.
In the non-DNA area, several forensic sciences have been the subject of new research studies evaluating their reliability in convicting someone. The new research has led innocence projects to re-examine the expert analysis used at trial to convict inmates. In many cases, innocence projects have discovered that that their client was convicted using unreliable, or even “junk,” science. In those cases, exonerations have occurred where the convictions have relied on expert analysis in areas such as bite mark evidence, firearms analysis, fingerprint analysis, and Shaken Baby Syndrome.
Innocence projects are also active in life after exoneration issues. Most exonerees leave prison with few resources to transition to a life of freedom. In the states that have compensation statutes, projects will help with the application process and litigate the claim if possible. The amount of compensation and the success in obtaining it varies from state to state.