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Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP | Mar 8, 2019

Why Wrongful Imprisonment Happens & What Ohio Has Done to Make Things Better

Categories: Wrongful Imprisonment

In a time when crime show docu-dramas and true crime podcasts have created an abundant supply of armchair detectives, real sleuths have faced intense and growing scrutiny over wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment. In most cases, however, mistakes that put innocent people behind bars aren’t just the product of one person’s tunnel vision, negligence, or oversight – but rather the result of systemic and deeply disturbing problems with our criminal justice system.

As a law firm which fights for victims of civil rights abuses, Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP has seen those problems up close and personal. Whether it’s police or prosecutorial misconduct, police shootings and the use of excessive force, or wrongful imprisonment, these problems and the attention they receive shine a spotlight on the failings of our criminal justice system, as well as the many potential areas of concern that produce them.

Some of these include:

  1. Mistaken Identity / Witness ID – According to the Innocence Project, issues of mistaken identification are the most pervasive problem behind wrongful convictions which are later overturned. As much as 70% or more of post-conviction exonerations based on DNA tests involved witnesses who mistakenly or incorrectly identified suspects.
  2. Forensic Gone Wrong – Forensic science has as much ability to help as it does to hurt, especially when used improperly in criminal cases. According to the Innocence Project, nearly half of all wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA involved the misapplication of forensic science. That “misapplication” can take several forms, including improperly validated methodology, unreliable forensic methods, false or misleading testimony that oversimplifies or exaggerates forensic evidence, testing errors, and even fabricated results and misconduct. False or misleading forensic evidence alone contributes to nearly a quarter of all wrongful convictions nationwide.
  3. False Confessions – Data shows about 1 in 4 wrongfully convicted persons later exonerated by DNA evidence made false confessions and / or incriminating statements during their case. If you’re wondering how that could ever happen, you’d be surprised. Researchers have noted many underlying factors, including real and perceived intimidation by law enforcement, the use of force or fear of force during interrogation, exploitation of compromised suspects (i.e. sleep-deprived, stressed, mentally deficient, or educationally limited suspects), and misleading interrogation tactics.
  4. Unreliable Informants– In addition to unreliable forensic testimony, unreliable testimony furnished by informants who may be incentivized in some way is a common reason for wrongful convictions. That includes both jailhouse informants, as well as incentivized informant witnesses and “co-conspirators,” which one study from the Center on Wrongful Convictions found to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital crime cases.
  5. Government Misconduct & Negligence – Police and prosecutorial misconduct, negligence, and sheer fraud is unfortunately not uncommon in post-conviction DNA exoneration cases. While some law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and other government investigators may make simple mistakes, some have also lost sight of their obligations in their zealous pursuit of conviction at all costs. Common forms of misconduct by police and prosecutors may range from coercing false confessions or mistaken witness identifications, incentivizing unreliable informants, misleading jurors, and withholding evidence to pressuring witnesses to not testify, deliberate destruction or mishandling of evidence, relying on or overstating fraudulent or misleading testimony, and permitting questionable witnesses to testify.
  6. Bad Defense Attorneys – It’s a common gripe of convicted individuals to complain about the quality of their legal representation, but in some cases, failures of defense attorneys can lead to wrongful convictions. That includes overworked defense lawyers who do little to prepare winnable cases, failures to call witnesses and thoroughly investigate, and severe departures from ethical and legal obligations.

The Silver Lining: New Laws Expand Rights for the Wrongfully Convicted

If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that there are more and more stories of innocent people behind bars being exonerated and freed from custody. Though that’s surely welcomed, it’s important we learn from such mistakes, pass new laws to provide wrongfully incarcerated individuals with justified recompense, and take new approaches that prevent such missteps from happening in in the first place.

Ohio, like many states across the country, is still working on those things. However, there is hope. In December, for example, Governor John Kasich signed legislation expanding the pool of potential claimants who are able to collect damages from the state for wrongful convictions. That law does a few important things:

  • It tackles and overly literal interpretation of state law by the Ohio Supreme Court, which in 2014 ruled that convicted individuals later exonerated of their charges are only eligible to seek damages from the state if Constitutional violations occurred after they were sentenced or imprisoned. It was a shocking ruling which proved devastating for many innocent people who sought compensation for wrongs that occurred prior to conviction.
  • Expands the eligible of claimants who can seek damages for wrongful convictions, including those who were exonerated for pre-conviction violations and those convicted of misdemeanors. Currently, Ohio providers just over $52,000 for each year a wrongfully convicted inmate spent behind bars.
  • Has a lot to do with “Brady Rule” violations, which occur when a person’s due process rights were violated because exculpatory information was withheld from the defense, either by police or prosecutors. It’s what happened when three Cleveland men imprisoned for 20 years over a fatal shooting were exonerated because a prosecutor in the case hid witness statements. Proving such a violation isn’t easy, though; only two dozen individuals in Ohio over the past decade, according to the Public Defender.

House Bill 411, which was supported by the Ohio Innocence Project and Ohio Public Defender, is the most recent change to a law which first went into effect in 1986. Because its first iteration required affirmative proof of innocence – an incredibly tough and arguably unfair standard to meet – the law was later expanded in 2003 to include convictions overturned due to errors or Constitutional violations.

The new changes under House Bill 411 also requires that any compensation claims awarded by the state be offset by any awards received in civil lawsuits. Wrongfully imprisoned individuals may choose to pursue such civil claims, rather than receive compensation through the state’s program, because they can provide more robust compensation for economic and non-economic damages caused by their wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

While the passage of HB 411 is certainly a step in the right direction, there remains much work to be done in terms of rectifying a system subject to systemic shortcomings, biasness, and pervasive problems that put innocent people behind bars. Though a “perfect” criminal justice system may not be possible, something better than the status quo should be everyone’s goal – as we could all very well find ourselves facing wrongful accusations, with little recourse to turn to.

As Civil Trial Attorneys, Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP fights for victims and families who’ve suffered as a result of all civil rights abuses and constitutional violations, as well as the wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. If you have questions about pursuing a potential case anywhere in the state of Ohio, contact us online or call (216) 600-0114 to speak with a lawyer.