In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wrongful Conviction

  • Introduction
  • The Death Penalty and Wrongful Conviction
  • Prosecution Error and Misconduct
  • Defense Counsel
  • Perjury/Informants
  • Race, Discrimination, and Wrongful Conviction

Criminology Wrongful Conviction
Marvin Zalman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0118


“Wrongful conviction,” an ambiguous term, has come to refer to the convictions of factually innocent persons and is used in this way in this article. This definition excludes persons who have committed the act and mens rea of crimes but whose convictions were obtained in violation of constitutional or other procedural rights in a manner not deemed harmless error by appellate courts. A better term might be “false conviction.” The term “miscarriages of justice” is often used to mean factually false convictions but could more neutrally include so-called wrongful acquittals and impunity from prosecution as well as wrongful convictions; this is a central theme in Forst 2004 (cited under Books.) Although the fear of convicting innocents has always been a concern of legal systems, the issue gained heightened salience with the development of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) profiling to convict and exclude suspects, with near-certain accuracy, after 1989. As more DNA postconviction exonerations came to light, serious questions were raised about the reliability of every aspect of the criminal-justice process concerned with detecting and prosecuting criminals. As a result, “wrongful conviction” covers a large number of criminal-justice processes and institutions involving the police crime detection function, prosecution, defense, forensic science, and adjudication. The subject also includes the consequences of wrongful conviction and compensating exonerees. Criminologists and criminal-justice scholars have written relatively little on the subject; most wrongful conviction literature is written by legal scholars, psychologists, forensic-science scholars, and journalists. Some important literature has employed narrative methodologies to convey the complexity of wrongful convictions. The subject includes studies both about the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions and the innocence movement. The movement is important to criminologists, because it has spawned a major critique of the criminal-justice process and has generated a broad range of potential reforms. The focus of this article is on wrongful conviction in the United States. Also, a large number of investigative journalism reports and highly informative films and documentaries have provided great insight into the causes, consequences, and potential reforms of wrongful convictions. In addition, instructive academic and official sources from other countries, especially Canada and the United Kingdom, can be useful but are not included in this article.

General Overviews

The works in this section give a historical introduction to the subject. Systematic interest in wrongful conviction was initiated in 1932 by Edwin M. Borchard and was kept alive for the next sixty years by lawyers’ and journalists’ books describing cases and speculating about the correlates of wrongful conviction. In the 1980s a few researchers began to explore wrongful convictions more systematically, with virtually no research antecedents. Several more recent overviews of the subject are provided, indicating the explosion of research and writing that has occurred within a short time period.

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