The Death of Innocence: Factual and Procedural Errors That Result in Wrongful Convictions

John D. Burrow, University of South Carolina

Over the last decade, legal scholars have meticulously documented cases of wrongfully convicted men in America's prisons. However, the idea that innocent men are sent to prison is not new in this country. The American public's renewed in this subject may be due largely in part to newly discovered evidence that has freed wrongly convicted men from death row in several states. In fact, over the last several years, investigative journalists have found that many people who currently sit on death row are probably innocent. Given these repeated instances where innocent men have been imprisoned and later set free, one must ask what contributes to this problem. Is it a system that places a premium on convictions at all costs? Is it a system that allows prosecutors unfettered discretion and resources in to pursue the presumed guilty? In the alternative, is it a system whose goal is no longer the search for the truth? Though these are only rhetorical questions, there may be a ring of truth to all three.

This paper will attempt to answer some of these questions through an examination of a subset of cases from Radelet, Bedau, and Putnam's study where race of the defendant played a major part in the conviction. The intent of this paper is to demonstrate that race has long played a major part in determing who is sentenced to death. In addition, this paper will address recent developments in criminal law in light of claims of innocence. In this manner, issues such as ineffective assistane of counsel, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and mistaken eyewitness identification will be explored.

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Updated 05/20/2006