Innocent People Can Be Wrongfully Convicted

As CNN recently reported, after 22 years on death row, Debra Milke is close to freedom.

In 1990, a jury convicted the Arizona woman, now 49, of murdering her 4-year-old son. She was sentenced to death.

“The Constitution requires a fair trial,” Kozinski wrote. “This never happened in Milke’s case.”

Milke’s son, Christopher, wanted to go to the mall to see Santa Claus. So, according to Milke, the plan was for her roommate, James Styers to take the young boy to the mall. Instead, Styers picked up a friend and drove the boy out to a secluded area, where they shot him three times. Styers was convicted and sentenced to death.

The crucial evidence against Milke was a detective’s testimony that the friend had told him Milke was involved. The detective also testified that when he questioned Milke, she confessed that her involvement in the murder was a “bad judgment call.” However, the interrogation was not taped and no one else was present to hear this alleged confession. No other witness or direct evidence linked Milke to the murder. The jury believed the detective and convicted Milke.

However, the jury never learned that the detective had a long history of lying under oath and other misconduct.

A federal appeals judge has now thrown out her conviction and sentence. In explaining his decision, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals chided the prosecution for remaining “unconstitutionally silent” on the “history of misconduct” of its key witness. Specifically, the judge noted that the detective had been suspended five days for taking “liberties” with a female motorist and lying about it to his supervisors; that judges had tossed out four confessions or indictments because Saldate had lied under oath; and that judges suppressed or vacated four confessions because Saldate had violated a person’s constitutional rights. “The Constitution requires a fair trial,” Kozinski wrote. “This never happened in Milke’s case.”

How can an innocent person be convicted? Even scarier, how can an innocent person be convicted and sentenced to death?

New research is trying to uncover why innocent people are wrongfully convicted in some cases yet acquitted in others? What is the difference between the circumstances and the cases?

A new study, ” Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice ” tried to uncover factors that affect when an innocent person is wrongfully convicted as compared to when an innocent person is acquitted or has charges dropped before the trial begins. The study concluded that there are 10 (ten) statistically significant factors that increase the changes of a wrongful conviction:

  1. A younger defendant
  2. A defendant with a criminal history
  3. A weak prosecution case
  4. Prosecution withheld evidence
  5. Lying by a non-eyewitness
  6. Unintentional witness misidentification
  7. Misinterpreting forensic evidence at trial
  8. A weak defense
  9. Defendant offered a family witness
  10. A “punitive” state culture

Visit the wrongful convictions webpage and study summary

Read the complete study (434 pages)

Watch a video interview with lead researcher Dr. Jon Gould

Hopefully, this research will allow both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys to work even harder and more diligently when any of these factors are present to make sure that innocent people are not wrongfully convicted.