NJ Lawmakers Propose Panel to Review Possible Wrongful Convictions

How many people are wrongfully convicted each year?

Over two million Americans are currently behind bars, representing the world’s highest incarceration rate.  It is difficult to accurately calculate how many of those in jail actually committed the crimes of which they were convicted.  One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in America were later found to be innocent.  This equates to one in 25 innocent death row inmates, and the true figure could be far higher among the general prison population.  Our New Jersey criminal defense attorneys discuss wrongful convictions and how our state may soon combat the problem.

Reasons for Wrongful Convictions

Wrongful convictions can ruin the life of not just the wrongly convicted individual, but their family.  Even further, a wrongful conviction has a negative impact on the integrity of the criminal justice system, and in turn the public’s perception of justice.  While each wrongful conviction is unique, there are several common causes of wrongful convictions across the nation, which include:

  1. Eyewitness misidentification: Eyewitness misidentification is considered the number one cause of wrongful convictions.  With the advent of DNA testing, hundreds of convictions based on eyewitness misidentification have now been overturned.
  2. False confessions:  It can be hard to understand, but studies prove that many innocent people end up confessing to crimes they did not commit.  False confessions can stem from police coercion or the defendant’s mental health.
  3. Poor defense lawyering:  Your defense lawyer plays a critical role in your zealous defense.  A defense attorney that fails to prepare, investigate, or challenge the state’s evidence can cause a wrongful conviction.  

A New System of Review

Recognizing the prevalence of wrongful convictions, several New Jersey senators have proposed the creation of a new review board that would speed up the process of exonerating those who are wrongfully convicted. If passed, the measure would establish the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission.  The Commission would review evidence in certain cases and present its findings to a judge.  While the review panel would not have the power to exonerate a defendant on its own, its attention and research into a specific case could lead to swift court action.  The review board could potentially prevent innocent defendants from languishing for decades in prison for a crime they did not commit.