Over the years, the justice system has sentenced people to jail for crimes they did not commit. These wrongful convictions of people are caused by different situations such as witness misidentification. Since 1989 to 2016, they have been more than a thousand people exonerated in the United States from jail after spending a significant part of their lives in jail as shown in the chart. It is likely that there are more people who have been wrongly convicted and are still spending their time in jail whereas they are those who have already died behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
One is likely to be convicted of a crime due to several reasons such as police misconduct. Whereas most police officers and law enforcers are honorable, the pressure that may be placed on a police officer by their seniors or the public after a crime is committed may drive the law enforcer to lie and victimize an innocent citizen (The University of Michigan Law School). In the same vein, one may be wrongfully convicted after the real criminal testifies against them in the hope of getting a shorter sentence or in the hope of going free. To avoid such situations, it is important for the jury to be informed of any likelihood of biasness in the testimonies of witnesses or snitches.
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In cases of wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations, the negative impact is usually not only on the wrongly convicted individuals but also on the victims of crime. For the crime victim, they are bound to experience psychological torture whenever a previously convicted individual is exonerated. This is usually more intense for those who provided eye witness accounts during sentencing (Irazola, Williamson and Stricker 1-8). This way, they are liable to feel intense guilt for their part in the judgment. Psychologically, they are likely to go through the initial pain again recounting the crime. The victims may also endure feelings of nervousness due to the fear that the exonerated individuals may come after them or those close to them in revenge missions. This fear may limit their lives and prevent them from leading normal lives. This fear may also be derived from the knowledge that the real criminal is still out there and might decide to hurt them again for fear of getting identified.
For the part of the exonerated individuals, the physical pain may result from having had to spend significant parts of their lives serving sentences for crimes that they never committed. The pain of living in prison as innocent individuals often lead to individuals seeking to commit suicide while in prison due to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Research has shown that individuals who are wrongfully sentenced are likely to go through nine psychological stages of which the end is the pure rage at the injustice committed on them (Scott 10-15). These psychological changes are usually permanent if the injustice that they feel has been done against them is not corrected and may result in them committing crime after jail. When exonerated, victims usually struggle to get back in society as they are victimized despite their innocence making it hard to find employment or social contacts. Exonerated individuals are also likely to face broken relations even in their families due to the difficulties that they experience in trusting again. Sleep disturbances and constant paranoia are common due to the fear of getting re-arrested. All these psychological traumas and probable poverty when released may drive individuals to result in violent crime or suicide.
- Irazola, Seri, et al. “Addressing the impact of wrongful convictions on crime victims.” National Institute of Justice Journal 274 (2014): 1-54.
- Scott, Leslie. “‘It Never, Ever Ends’: The Psychological impact of a wrongful conviction.” American University Criminal Law Brief 5.2 (2010): 10-22.
- The university of Michigan Law School. “Causes of wrongful convictions.” n.d. 6 December 2017. <https://www.law.umich.edu/clinical/innocenceclinic/Pages/wrongfulconvictions.aspx>.