The criminal justice system may be far less reliable than many Virginia residents expect. Many people are aware of some of the famous exonerations for serious crimes, especially on the basis of DNA. These cases generally concern capital crimes such as rape or murder.
Wrongful convictions happen in approximately 3 to 5 percent of capital crime cases. However, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist realized that no similar statistics existed for other types of crimes, ranging from felony assault or robbery charges to misdemeanor theft or drug possession cases. Several researchers examined the cases of approximately 3,000 state prisoners throughout Pennsylvania and found that up to 6 percent of them could be wrongfully convicted. The researchers noted that this is an upper-end estimate, and they expect that if the real result deviates, it would be to a lower number.
Criminologists have used several methods to look at wrongful conviction rates, including questioning judges and prosecutors or, as in this case, questioning incarcerated people. While prisoners may be more likely to claim a high number of wrongful convictions, judges and prosecutors may also be more likely to claim a lower number, especially when speculating about cases with which they are not personally involved.
The potential for wrongful conviction only emphasizes how important it is that people who are accused of a crime work with a criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can help an alleged offender present a strong defense before trial and in the courtroom as well as challenge police practices and questionable evidence.