A criminal defense attorney is one of those oft-heard titles bandied about without much thought given to the meaning behind the words. And if one does take time to think about it the word criminal stands out, leading to a foregone conclusion: guilty as charged, which in turn leads to
Why would any self-respecting attorney want to defend someone who has committed a crime?
Not all who are charged are guilty. Furthermore, not all who are convicted and sentenced are guilty.
Everyday Consequences of Being Wrongfully Convicted
But even if a person is not sentenced to a term in prison, the fact that they were convicted casts a long and dark shadow. They may have to face a long detention period during which some must wear an ankle monitor. Furthermore, they lose the right to vote, and in some cases, to drive a car, and even to have a drink in a bar or restaurant. Some municipalities disqualify anyone who has served time in prison from applying for affordable or subsidized housing.
The Innocence Project, an independent non-profit organization working to prevent wrongful convictions, free the innocent, and create more equitable judicial systems, conducted a study and found that as of February 2023, of the 2.3 million men and women presently in prison, 2 to 10%were wrongfully convicted. If you do the math, you’ll see that it translates to between 46,000 and 230, 000 prisoners who were and are victims of wrongful conviction. And therein lies the answer to why criminal defense attorneys and violent crime lawyers toil in their jobs – to ensure that is not the fate of the people they are defending.
Still, the question remains, just how is it that this many innocent people ended up and are still in prison?
How Do Wrongful Convictions Occur?
The University of Colorado School of Law looked into 2,400 cases involving individuals who had been exonerated of crimes for which they had been serving prison time and was able to come up with five common underlying factors leading to wrongful convictions.
- Flawed forensics (24% of exonerated cases)
- Misconduct by prosecutors and police (54%)
- Eyewitness misidentification (28%)These case
- Perjured witness testimony (60%)
- False confessions (60%)
And while one might think those officials behind these cases might be held responsible, the reality is that when the tables are turned, justice is not always blind.
The Weighted Scales of Justice
The Washington Post looked into these 2,400 cases logged into the National Registry of Exonerations, a database maintained by the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law, and found that 34% of defendants had been victims of police misconduct and 30% by prosecutors. And while in many cases, investigations were launched to look into these instances of official misconduct only 19% of police officers were disciplined, even less, 4% of prosecutors faced disciplinary measures.
When Exoneration Comes Just in Time
80% of the 2,400 cases logged into the National Registry between 1989 and 2019 were for violent crimes and for some, exoneration was literally a lifesaver. These were the 93 innocent defendants who had been sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Exoneration unlocked the doors of death row for these victims of an unjust criminal system.
Frightening as this figure may be, these were just 93 of the thousands of near misses. And now, nearly 35 years later, the situation has yet to improve significantly, as any Phoenix violent crime lawyer can tell you.