Wrongful convictions occur when factually innocent people are convicted of crimes that they did not commit. The path to a wrongful conviction begins with the innocent person being charged. From there, the person has an option to either plead guilty or not guilty. If the innocent person pleads guilty or goes to trial and is convicted, the result is that he or she will be serving time for a crime he or she did not commit.
If someone is wrongly convicted, the best course of action is to speak with a defence lawyer. Criminals turn to these guys because they have hands-on experience dealing with similar cases and can better represent their case in the court.
In Canada, the vast majority of wrongful convictions involve homicide or sexual assault. This suggests that many wrongful convictions in less serious cases have probably gone undetected. Recently, several high-profile cases have pressured the government to launch public inquiries into the systemic causes of wrongful convictions in Canada.
These reports have recognized the magnitude of the problem, provided valuable insights about the causes, and recommended best practices for Crown counsel, police investigators, and other justice system actors when conducting criminal investigations.
Causes of Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful convictions are the result of a combination of several elements:
- Tunnel Vision
- Eyewitness Misidentification
- False Confessions
- False Guilty Pleas
- Unreliable Forensic Evidence or Expert Testimony
- Systemic Discrimination
- False Testimony from In-Custody Informants
- Professional Misconduct
Tunnel vision is when criminal justice actors focus on one suspect to the exclusion of all others. It involves a “narrow focus on a particular investigative or prosecutorial theory, so as to unreasonably colour the evaluation of information received and one’s conduct in response to that information.”
This has been identified as a leading cause in wrongful conviction cases in Canada. Police and Crown counsel can become so convinced that they have identified the correct suspect that they will subconsciously seek out evidence that fits their theory and ignore any contrary facts or evidence.
In these circumstances, it is important for Crown counsel to take a step back, evaluate their role, and recognize that they have a duty to be fair and impartial. This requires them to review the evidence through an objective lens and be open to alternative theories. Ultimately their goal is not to secure a conviction but to make sure that justice is served.
The inquiry into Thomas Sophonow’s wrongful conviction determined that tunnel vision played a significant role. In that case, the police were so focused on Thomas that they lost sight of any other alternative suspects. As a result, Thomas was wrongfully convicted, while the real perpetrator walked free.
Eyewitness misidentification is a key factor that has contributed to a number of wrongful conviction cases in Canada. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification was a contributing cause in approximately 70% of convictions that were overturned through DNA testing.
Eyewitnesses can be unreliable for many reasons:
- Stress and heightened emotions can make them lose sight of the facts
- Environmental factors such as lighting and distance can prevent them from identifying the correct suspect
- They can experience a loss of memory due to a significant lapse of time
- Initial shock after the event can prevent them from properly recalling events
Crown counsel must tread cautiously when they are assessing eyewitness identification evidence. In some instances, eyewitnesses can appear to be honest and confident, but can still be wrong. Whenever possible, Crown counsel should strive to corroborate eyewitness identification and be wary of evidence provided by a single witness.
The police are known to use rigorous interrogation tactics to elicit confessions. Few people are often able to withstand these pressures and often succumb to them, resulting in giving the police a false confession to simply relieve themselves of the stresses associated with interrogation. This can be detrimental to the accused’s case.
Individuals who possess the following characteristics are particularly vulnerable to giving a false confession:
- High levels of anxiety
- Sleep deprivation and/or fatigue
- Drug and/or alcohol withdrawal
- Cognitive impairments and mental disabilities
- Poor memory
- Short attention span
- Poor communication skills
In light of the growing number of false confessions, the Crown counsel has a duty to critically assess confessions for reliability. They should be wary of the circumstances that lead certain types of suspects to confess to a crime they did not commit, especially if the suspect is young or intellectually disabled.
False Guilty Pleas
Many defendants have pleaded guilty to serious criminal offences they did not commit in an attempt to avoid receiving a potentially lengthier sentence if convicted at trial. Sometimes, a convincing eyewitness or expert testimony could lead the accused to believe that they will not be able to convince the jury of their innocence.
This was the case for Maria Shepherd who gave a false guilty plea for a crime she did not commit in exchange of receiving a shorter sentence. Maria believed that the Crown’s expert witness, a now-disgraced pediatric forensic pathologist, would convince the jury of her guilt.
Unreliable Forensic Evidence or Expert Testimony
Over the years, forensic analysis techniques such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparison, firearm tool mark analysis, shoe comparisons, and blood typing have come under serious criticism. Many of these methods, while considered objective, are still subjected to human interpretation so there is always potential for error.
When evaluating forensic evidence or expert testimony, Crown counsel should consider the following:
- The validity of the science;
- The qualifications of the expert;
- The quality and validity of the testing procedures;
- The objectivity and independence of the opinion;
- Whether a proper evidentiary foundation can be laid; and
- The relevance of the evidence to an issue in dispute
Race and gender biases can play a significant role in wrongful convictions. For example, the New York Innocence Project reported that 70% of those who were exonerated by DNA evidence were racialized persons.
In Canada, Aboriginal people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that Indigenous adults accounted for 26% of admissions to provincial and territorial correctional services when they only make up 3% of the Canadian adult population.
False Testimony from In-Custody Informants
Information provided by in-custody informants has been a contributing factor in wrongful conviction cases. These informants are usually given incentives to testify, such as receiving a lighter sentence, the withdrawal of criminal charges, or monetary compensation. Because of these incentives, these informants typically act to advance their own interests and can be notoriously unreliable.
Most police and Crown counsel do not act with malicious intentions. However, the way they conduct themselves when they are engaged in building their case can contribute to wrongfully convicting an innocent person.
When investigating a high-profile case, police may face pressures from the public, their superiors, the media, and the victim’s family and friends to capture the perpetrator. Too much pressure on law enforcement officials during the investigative process can lead to tunnel vision and result in misidentifying the real offender.
Similar to the police, Crown counsel may also face pressures to secure a conviction. Crown Attorneys’ Offices may put pressures on them and measure their success based on the number of convictions they have secured.
This can lead Crown counsel to suppress evidence or rely on imperfect statements to ensure a conviction. Overemphasizing the importance of convictions can lead to professional misconduct which leads to wrongful convictions.
The accused and his or her counsel have the right to access all the evidence in the Crown’s possession, including exculpatory evidence. In R. v. Stinchcombe  3 SCR 326, the Supreme Court has emphasized that “the Crown has a legal duty to disclose all the relevant information to the defence. The fruits of the investigation which are in its possession are not the property of the Crown for use in securing a conviction but the property of the public to be used to ensure that justice is done.”
Defence counsel are also equally susceptible to professional misconduct that can lead to a wrongful conviction. Oftentimes, they are overworked and are burdened with a heavy caseload, especially if they are employed by Legal Aid.
This can prevent them from formulating strong legal arguments, produce mistakes in judgement, and lead them to overlook important aspects of their case. In the long-term, inadequate defences can be detrimental for their client’s case and lead them to be wrongfully convicted.