OUR WORK EDUCATION
UNCUFF THE INNOCENT offers information about wrongful convictions, their causes, and proper police procedures so that wrongful convictions can more easily be prevented, recognized, and overturned.
We work to reduce wrongful convictions by improving police-public relations so that fewer false allegations are leveled against individuals, both members of the public and law enforcement officers.
Police officers who are unethical or biased are one of the causes of wrongful convictions. Yet police officers who are knowledgeable and concerned about wrongful convictions are part of the solution to preventing them.
It is imperative that law enforcement officers understand that public trust is harmed and the risk of wrongful conviction is increased when law enforcement officers discriminate, succumb to explicit or implicit bias during investigations, and follow unethical and dangerous practices, such as coercing witnesses, failing to perform proper lineups, falsifying and altering police reports, and fabricating evidence.
It is also important for the public to know that many good, hard-working law enforcement officers themselves become victims of false allegations.
We strive to eliminate prejudice and false allegations against police officers by educating the public about the challenges officers face during encounters with the public.
Below you can learn more about wrongful convictions, false allegations against law enforcement officers, and police procedures that can help prevent wrongful convictions. Together we can end wrongful convictions!
ABOUT WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS
The National Registry of Exonerations reports that Currently 2,265 innocent people in the U.S. have been exonerated. These innocent individuals spent a total of more than 19,970 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Learning about their wrongful convictions can help us prevent other innocent people from experiencing the same nightmare. It can also help us free the many thousands of innocent people estimated to be imprisoned in the U.S.
HOW MANY INNOCENT PEOPLE ARE WRONGFULLY CONVICTED?
No one knows for sure, but the Innocence Project has estimated that from 2% to 5% of prisoners in the U.S. are actually innocent. (www.innocenceproject.org) Even if only 1% of the approximately 2 million prisoners in the U.S. are innocent, this would mean more than 20,000 innocent people are behind bars at this time.
A 2013 study by Walsh et al., "Estimating the Prevalence of Wrongful Conviction," which was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that DNA evidence in 12.6 percent of cases involving DNA would support a claim of wrongful conviction.
"Extrapolating to all cases in our dataset," the authors concluded, "we estimate a slightly smaller rate of 11.6 percent" for all the cases, which included those lacking DNA evidence. The study's authors looked at 714 murder and sexual assault convictions in the 1970s and 1980s in 56 Virginia circuit courts to calculate an estimated rate of wrongful conviction.
A 2014 study by Gross et al., "Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death," estimated that 1 out of 25 death row inmates is probably innocent.
(Photo by Flickr user Jobs For Felons Hub,
used under a Creative Commons license)
WHO IS MOST LIKELY TO BE WRONGFULLY CONVICTED?
Although anyone can be a victim of wrongful conviction, research published in a 2017 report entitled, "Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States," by the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions reveals that the majority of innocent people who are wrongfully convicted and later exonerated are African-American, even though African Americans comprise only 13% of the U.S. population.
This disparity in which African Americans are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and later exonerated was found to hold true across all major crime categories, including murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.
For example, the study's authors describe that "judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. The major cause for this huge racial disparity appears to be the high danger of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims in violent crimes with black assailants."
Data also show that innocent African Americans, on average, spend approximately 4 more years in prison before being exonerated than white exonerees did. The researchers explain that "some of these differences reflect longer average sentences imposed on the innocent black defendants, but the data also suggest that there is more resistance to releasing innocent defendants if they are black."
A number of reasons exist for the high rate of wrongful convictions followed by exonerations of innocent people who are African-American:
Police are more likely to stop, search, and question African Americans than white people. This is caused partly by black communities being designated more often as high-crime areas, leading to those areas being more heavily policed as police officers attempt to reduce the crime rate. Another cause of the more frequent questioning of African Americans by police is racial profiling by police.
African Americans are more likely than white people to be the target of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
African Americans are more likely to be misidentified by white victims or eyewitnesses.
A high rate of homicide in the African-American community leads to a greater chance of innocent black suspects being wrongfully convicted.
An Innocence Project case manager reports that "thousands of individuals of every race and ethnicity have requested our assistance. Yet, the vast majority of our clients are minorities. In fact, people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system – from arrest to conviction to the prison cells."
THE CAUSES OF WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS
Although every wrongful conviction is unique, organizations such as the Innocence Project and the Michigan Innocence Clinic that work to overturn wrongful convictions have identified types of criminal justice system errors seen again and again in cases where innocent individuals are convicted.
Some of the most common causes of wrongful conviction are listed below. Any given wrongful conviction may have resulted from a combination of these and other, less common, causes:
Faulty Eyewitness Identification.
The most common cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. is that eyewitnesses misidentified the suspect.
This occurs because the human mind does not remember events and people perfectly or consistently. Also, those already imperfect memories can be contaminated by events afterwards, causing altered and incorrect memories to be fixed in our minds.
The problem of people's imprecise and inaccurate memories is made worse when police manipulate lineups of suspects to try to make eyewitnesses identify a suspect favored by police.
For example, when police detectives encourage witnesses or victims to believe they have identified the correct suspect, then they may begin to believe their incorrect memory is the truth.
Similarly, if detectives suggest to witnesses or victims that they may have erred in remembering some details, then they may begin to develop a new, supposedly corrected version of their memory. The result is that witnesses and victims can be convinced they have correctly identified the suspect, when in reality they are identifying an innocent person.
Junk Science (unvalidated or improper forensics).
Many forensic disciplines apply techniques and methods that have not been approved by the scientific community. Because of this, forensic analysts sometimes give testimony without a proper scientific basis for their conclusions. Forensic analysts also sometimes engage in outright misconduct by fabricating and falsifying evidence.
Examples of faulty science include: bite mark and fingerprint analysis as well as hair and fiber comparisons in which an analyst claims there is a match to a particular person; and improper use of DNA evidence, such as by claiming a person contributed, or did not contribute, to a DNA sample when the data are actually inconclusive.
Government misconduct (bad police work and prosecutorial misconduct).
While most police officers and prosecutors are hard-working, well-intentioned individuals, sometimes police investigators, prosecutors, and other government officials work to ensure that a defendant is convicted even when the evidence is weak or clear proof of innocence exists.
Detectives and prosecutors may believe a suspect is guilty and then succumb to tunnel vision, selectively promoting evidence that appears to support guilt, and ignoring or hiding evidence that supports innocence. In other cases, officials knowingly frame innocent individuals to gain greater status, job promotions, or other benefits.
Police officers have caused wrongful convictions by hiding, altering, or fabricating evidence, coercing confessions, manipulating eyewitness identifications, pressuring witnesses, making deals with snitches so they provide false testimony, and lying while testifying at trials.
Prosecutors have also caused wrongful convictions by ignoring or hiding exculpatory evidence that would help suspects prove their innocence, encouraging witnesses to lie on the stand, using "expert" testimony from people who are not experts, and lying to jurors, defense lawyers, and judges.
Informants and jailhouse snitches.
People who have been given an incentive to testify, such as payment or favors like reduction or dismissal of their own charges, may make false statements that lead to an innocent person's conviction. Such statements are especially damaging when the jury is not informed of the incentives that these witnesses were given to testify.
Many innocent defendants from all walks of life will make incriminating statements, provide confessions, or plead guilty to crimes when they are put under severe stress. This can happen when innocent people are pressured, misled, threatened, or abused by police officers during interrogations until the innocent suspects come to believe confessing will lead to a better outcome than continuing to maintain their innocence.
Looking at the 330 people who were exonerated by DNA evidence between 1989 to 2015, it was found that around 25% gave false confessions after long interrogations. These innocent people often recanted afterwards, but their coerced or pressured confessions were still used to convict them.
The failure of lawyers to investigate a case sufficiently, call witnesses to testify (such as witnesses who could provide an alibi), and prepare for the trial can lead to the conviction of the innocent. Lawyers may be unable to handle complex cases, which can be overwhelming.
When innocent people lack funding for private attorneys and are granted a court-appointed defense attorney, their public defenders may have little experience or be so overworked that they cannot represent their clients effectively.
Unfair, biased judges.
Judges contribute to wrongful convictions when they fail to make fair and reasonable decisions about the evidence and testimony allowed in court. As a result, juries are exposed to false information that biases them against a suspect.
Judges may fail to exclude a suspect's confession obtained through pressure and unsupported by physical evidence. Judges may allow testimony from felons whose motives are questionable. Judges may fail to question a supposed expert's credentials and testimony outside of a jury's hearing. Judges also may fail to require prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence.
Knowledge is power. Understanding these causes of wrongful conviction can help our society more readily recognize and fix flaws in the criminal justice system so that the innocent remain free.
AGAINST LAW ENFORCEMENT
Law enforcement officers are the frequent victim of false allegations by members of the public. False reports against law enforcement officers often include allegations of theft, excessive use of force, domestic violence, assault, sexual harassment or sexual assault, racism or racial profiling.
False allegations against officers can destroy their reputations, strip them of their jobs, and strip them of their freedom, leading to lengthy prison sentences for crimes they never committed.
False allegations against officers also present a cost to the community by forcing cities to pay large sums of public money to fight the allegations or reach settlements with accusers to avoid costly legal expenses.
HOW FREQUENT ARE FALSE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST POLICE?
Law enforcement agencies report that officers are a common target of false allegations.
"Police officers with any time on the job soon come to appreciate the frequency with which false reports are made against police officers," write the authors of False Allegations: Investigative and Forensic Issues in Fraudulent Reports of Crime.
For example, a Detroit Police Association President explained that fake claims against police are common after a woman falsely accused two Detroit police officers of rape in 2016, an allegation that was disproved by their patrol car dash cam.
Law Enforcement Today describes numerous recent false allegations and claims against officers that were proven to be false by body cam or dash cam footage. The footage was often released by agencies to prove their officers had done nothing wrong.
Citizens frequently complain about officers' use of force, yet a large percentage of such complaints, 25% in one study, are unfounded, meaning that the complaint was not based on facts, or the reported incident did not occur.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics study discovered that 25% of 26,000 use of force complaints against approximately 400,000 officers in large agencies (those having at least 100 officers) in 2002 were unfounded.
Only 8% of the use of force complaints were sustained, meaning there was sufficient evidence for the accused officer to face disciplinary action.
This does not mean that the remainder of the use of force complaints (92%) were lies, however. The remainder of complaints included the 25% that were unfounded, as well as cases that either lacked sufficient evidence to prove them, led to officers being exonerated because their use of force was determined to be lawful and proper, or resulted in the complaint being withdrawn.
The take home message is that law enforcement officers are often accused of misconduct that either simply did not occur or lacked evidence to support the allegations.
WHY DO CITIZENS FALSELY ACCUSE POLICE OFFICERS?
Citizens make false reports against law enforcement officers for a variety of reasons, some intentional and some not.
Citizens' motives for accusing police of wrongdoing include revenge against police, attempts by citizens to avoid criminal penalties for their own crimes, and financial gain from civil lawsuits against law enforcement officers, agencies, and cities.
Other causes of false allegations against police are that people who lodge complaints may be struggling with mental illness or may be under the influence of drugs that alter their perception of events when stopped by police.
After a woman falsely accused two Detroit police officers of rape in 2016, which was disproved by their patrol car dash cam, the woman later admitted that she was under the influence of alcohol and under medication for a serious mental condition when she made her allegation.
She is reported to have apologized "for making up the whole story and potentially destroying the lives of those officers."
This woman's allegation is a good example of how whether or not an alleged victim seeks a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) kit cannot be used as proof that an allegation is true. Before the woman admitted her allegation was fabricated, she went to the hospital for a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) kit, which was administered. The nurse noted no signs of injury or trauma.
While discussing this false rape allegation case, the Detroit Police Association President said that often people make false allegations against police officers and file lawsuits just to see if the city will settle out of court for a cash payment.
He explained, "In the past, there have been so many cases where a municipality will actually settle out of court instead of litigating a case, just to save the cost of litigating a case."
"This is nothing short of urban terrorism," the Detroit Police Association President concluded, because the false accusers "try to take freedom away from those who do nothing more than try to keep our citizens safe."
False allegations against police harm not only the officers but the community at large.
HOW TO STOP FALSE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST POLICE OFFICERS
The consistent use of body cameras and dash cams protects law enforcement officers from false allegations and also protects the public from officer misconduct.
Recommendations to reduce false reporting are described in the book False Allegations: Investigative and Forensic Issues in Fraudulent Reports of Crime, and those recommendations include:
Officers should use body cameras, including audio, and patrol car dash cams when responding to calls and during contact with the public.
Supervisors must review footage and audio, turning it over immediately in its unedited form to the defense following an allegation.
Body camera and dash cam footage should be made public when there is a criminal complaint to show that agencies are committed to increasing public trust and respect.