Reversing Wrongful Convictions: Processes Involved in Undoing Justice

John A. Humphrey, University of North Carolina - Greensboro
Cindy Dollar, University of North Carolina - Greensboro
Saundra D. Westervelt, University of North Carolina - Greensboro

Analyses of wrongful convictions have documented its incidence, isolated key factors (e.g., eyewitness misidentification, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and inadequate legal representation), and drawn attention to the exculpatory potential of DNA evidence. The present investigation focuses on the link between the evidentiary processes that lead to a wrongful conviction and those processes that resulted in the reversal of the conviction. Social structural and evidentiary data on 182 cases of persons wrongfully convicted of criminal homicide in the U.S., drawn principally from law reviews, published reports, and new accounts, are analyzed. The analyses are guided by the theoretical formulations of Black (1976, 1989, 1998; and Cooney, 1994) on the impact of the structures of homicide cases, the errors that lead to wrongful convictions, and the evidence needed to exonerate the accused. Variations in the interplay between the structure of the case and the evidentiary processes are analyzed across three sentencing possibilities: the death penalty, life imprisonment, and a sentence less than life.

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Updated 05/20/2006