Causes of Wrongful Conviction

The truth matters.

Sometimes a procedurally fair trial can result in an innocent person’s conviction. Mistaken eyewitness identification and false confessions can lead to wrongful convictions. Prosecutors can fail to turn over evidence, or defense attorneys don’t provide effective counsel. In many cases, racism and implicit bias play a significant role in the wrongful conviction of innocent people of color.

Every case of wrongful conviction is a case of the true perpetrator escaping justice—and potentially going on to commit more crimes. Only when we know the truth about whether a person is innocent or guilty, can justice be realized.

Mistaken Eyewitness Identification

Witness memories from stressful or traumatic situations are not always reliable, and identifications can be influenced by lineups or photo arrays in which the suspect unfairly stands out, and by suggestion—intentional or unintentional—from police or prosecutors. In addition, witnesses often struggle to identify strangers of a different race.


of exonerations in Washington state involve mistaken witness identification


of exonerations nationally involve mistaken witness identification


of DNA exoneration cases nationally involve mistaken witness identification

False Confessions

People confess to crimes they didn’t commit for a range of reasons, including deception, coercion, threat of harsh sentences, exhaustion, or fear of violence by law enforcement.


of exonerations in Washington state involve false confessions


of exonerations nationally involve false confessions


of DNA exoneration cases nationally involve false confessions

Police and Prosecutor Misconduct

Fraud, negligence, or misconduct by prosecutors or police is common among DNA exoneration cases. Police may deliberately use suggestion in identification procedures, coerce false confessions, or lie about observations. Prosecutors may withhold or mishandle evidence, allow untruthful witnesses to testify, or rely on fraudulent forensic experts.


of exonerations in Washington state involve police or prosecutor misconduct


of exonerations nationally involve police or prosecutor misconduct


of DNA exoneration cases nationally involve police or prosecutor misconduct

Unreliable Evidence

Questionable forensic evidence plays a significant role in at least half of overturned convictions. Evidence lacking scientific reliability or validity can be admitted. Evidence can be deliberately or accidentally handled at the crime scene, contaminated or mislabeled in the lab, and misrepresented in the report.


of exonerations in Washington state involve unreliable evidence


of exonerations nationally involve unreliable evidence


of DNA exoneration cases nationally involve unreliable evidence

Perjured Informant Testimony

Witnesses can provide information or testimony in exchange for personal benefits, such as leniency or dropped charges in their own criminal cases, money, or special privileges—creating a strong incentive to lie.


of exonerations in Washington state involve perjured informant testimony


of exonerations nationally involve perjured informant testimony


of DNA exoneration cases nationally involve perjured informant testimony (jailhouse snitch only; not including other “incentivized” witnesses)

Ineffective Defense Counsel

Overworked defense attorneys can fail to properly do their jobs, including neglecting to investigate, call witnesses, or prepare for trial. These failures occur at both the trial level and on appeal.

Racism and Implicit Bias

Criminal victims, witnesses, police officers, prosecutors, judges, and even public defenders can have unconscious biases based on ingrained racial stereotypes. These stereotypes go back to our country’s history of slavery and are reinforced today in media and popular culture. Whether intentional or not, people’s biases affect their perceptions, memories, and actions. Ultimately, this perpetuates significant disparities in criminal justice.

Black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than any other racial or ethnic group.

According to figures from the National Registry of Exonerations, Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but approximately 47 percent of national exonerations. Black people are:


more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder


more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault


more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes

Black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder when the victim was white.

Only about 15 percent of people killed by Black people were white, but 31 percent of Black exonerees were wrongfully convicted of killing white people. Black people convicted of murder are 50 percent more likely to be innocent than white people convicted of murder.

Black exonerees wait longer for justice.

Black exonerees spend more time in prison than white exonerees before they’re cleared and released (10.7 years vs. 7.4 years for white people).

Race is a major factor in mistaken witness identification.

Called the “cross-race effect,” scientific research has shown that it is more difficult for witnesses to correctly identify someone of a different race or ethnicity. Mistaken witness identification was a factor in 72 percent of all wrongful convictions identified through DNA. Among those cases, at least 42 percent involved a witness and suspect of different races.

Innocent People Suffer a Terrible Burden

Even if they are freed, wrongfully convicted people suffer lasting physical and psychological harm from their imprisonment. They lose their everyday lives and are separated from their families and communities. And, society loses the human potential of innocent people.

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Interested in Learning More About Wrongful Convictions?

Check out our resource list or visit the National Registry of Exonerations.

Resource List