Wrongful convictions

Jennifer Del Prete wipes away tears on the day she was released from prison about a decade before her sentence was completed. A federal judge freed her on bond in light of new evidence—including revelatory information found by The Medill Justice Project—ruling no reasonably jury would have found her guilty of murder. (Annabel Edwards/The Medill Justice Project)

How many is too many?

Over the past quarter century in the United States, there have been more than 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations, according to the Innocence Project, and the National Registry of Exonerations has identified over 1,600 exonerations since 1989. Experts attribute wrongful convictions to several causes, including misidentification by an eyewitness, improper forensic evidence, false confessions and the use of informants who testify against the accused.

No authoritative count of wrongful convictions in the rest of the world exists but one estimate comes from an unlikely source. Hans Sherrer, a former plumber living in Washington state, started tracking international wrongful convictions in 1996 and maintains the only known database for exonerations in the United States and abroad. He has counted more than 5,800 wrongful convictions worldwide, dating as far back as the early 20th century.

Wrongful convictions also contribute to a related problem—prison overcrowding. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and one of the leading incarceration rates, with about 2.2 million inmates, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. And the number is growing. All five continents have experienced growth in prison population over the past 15 years. The estimated world prison population has increased by 25 percent to 30 percent, while the world population has grown by about 20 percent.

There is no way to know with certainty how many innocent people have been executed due to wrongful convictions. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there’s strong evidence that at least 11 people who have been executed in the United States were innocent. However, a 2014 study published in the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that over the past 35 years, as many as 50 innocent people in the United States may have been executed.

If you have information about wrongful convictions, please contact us at medilljusticeproject@northwestern.edu, or 847-491-5840.

Wrongful Convictions by Country

Over the past two decades, Hans Sherrer has gathered information about wrongful convictions across the world largely from English-language press accounts and organizations devoted to investigating potentially wrongful convictions. The Medill Justice Project, which verified his sources, tabulated Sherrer’s findings by nation to try to better understand the extent of wrongful convictions internationally, given the dearth of data on the topic. Because of the sources of Sherrer’s information, the tally, per nation, may reflect in part where wrongful convictions are most often reported.

United States 3,517
United Kingdom 930
Australia 150
India 130
Canada 97
Norway 70
New Zealand 55
Germany 36
Italy 31
Ireland 26
France 26
Tanzania 26
Kenya 25
Israel 25
Hong Kong 25
South Africa 25
Malaysia 24
Jamaica 21
Japan 20
Pakistan 19
Angola 18
United Arab Emirates 17
Spain 17
China 17
Fiji 14
Nigeria 14
Russian Federation 14
Greece 13
Sweden 13
Republic of (South) Korea 12
Zimbabwe 12
Saint Kitts and Nevis 11
Singapore 10
Uganda 10
Bahrain 10
Egypt 9
Vietnam 9
Trinidad and Tobago 9
Ghana 8
Libya 8
Belize 8
Mexico 8
Belgium 7
Saudi Arabia 7
Philippines 7
Sudan 6
Netherlands 6
Zambia 6
Bahamas 6
Senegal 6
Serbia 5
Turks and Caicos Islands 5
Cayman Islands 5
Costa Rica 5
Croatia 5
Indonesia 5
Thailand 5
Virgin Islands (British) 4
Namibia 4
Scotland 4
Switzerland 4
Turkey 4
Belarus 3
Bermuda 3
Chile 3
Cyprus 3
Guatemala 3
Hungary 3
Malawi 3
Mongolia 3
Puerto Rico 3
Bangladesh 3
Colombia 2
Maldives 2
Netherlands (Dutch) Antilles 2
North Korea 2
Peru 2
Qatar 2
Sierra Leone 2
Somalia 2
Sri Lanka 2
Taiwan 2
Guam 2
Czech Republic 2
Iran 2
Afghanistan 1
Barbados 1
Brazil 1
Brunei Darussalam 1
Bulgaria 1
Cambodia 1
Cuba 1
Denmark 1
Finland 1
Isle of Man 1
Kosovo 1
Kuwait 1
Latvia 1
Lithuania 1
Nauru 1
New Caledonia 1
Nicaragua 1
Northern Mariana Islands 1
Poland 1
Rwanda 1
Saint Lucia 1
Seychelles 1
The Island of Jersey 1
Tonga 1
Tunisia 1
Ukraine 1
United Nations court in the Hague 1
Vanuatu 1
Botswana 1
Morocco 1

Data from Hans Sherrer’s Innocents Database

Additional Resources on Wrongful Convictions

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Anderson, Barrie, and Dawn Anderson. Manufacturing guilt: Wrongful convictions in Canada. Halifax, Canada: Fernwood, 1998.

Bandes, Susan. “Loyalty to One’s Convictions: The Prosecutor and Tunnel Vision.” Howard LJ 49 (2005): 475.

Bedau, Hugo Adam, Michael L. Radelet, and Constance E. Putnam. “Convicting the innocent in capital cases: Criteria, evidence, and inference.” Drake L. Rev.52 (2003): 587.

Bernhard, Adele. “When Justice Fails: Indemnification for Unjust Conviction.” University of Chicago Roundtable 73, no. 6 (1999).

Bowman, Locke E. “Lemonade Out of Lemons: Can Wrongful Convictions Lead to Criminal Justice Reform?” (2008): 1501-1518.

Burke, Alafair. “Neutralizing Cognitive Bias: An Invitation to Prosecutors.” NYUJL & Liberty 2 (2006): 512.

Campbell, Kathryn, and Myriam Denov. “The burden of innocence: Coping with a wrongful imprisonment.” Canadian journal of criminology and criminal justice 46, no. 2 (2004): 139-164.

Cassell, Paul G. “The guilty and the ‘innocent’: An examination of alleged cases of wrongful conviction from false confessions.” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 22 (1999).

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Death Penalty Worldwide. “Innocence and Wrongful Convictions.” Last modified April 1, 2014. http://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/wrongful-convictions.cfm.

Denov, Myriam S., and Kathryn M. Campbell. “Criminal Injustice Understanding the Causes, Effects, and Responses to Wrongful Conviction in Canada.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21, no. 3 (2005): 224-249.

Drizin, Steven A., and Greg Luloff. “Are juvenile courts a breeding ground for wrongful convictions.” N. Ky. L. Rev. 34 (2007): 257.

Drizin, Steven A., and Marissa J. Reich. “Heeding the lessons of history: The need for mandatory recording of police interrogations to accurately assess the reliability and voluntariness of confessions.” Drake L. Rev. 52 (2003): 619.

Duke University School of Law. “Wrongful Convictions Resources.” Accessed December 4, 2015. https://law.duke.edu/ccjpr/resources/.

Dwyer, Jim, Peter Neufeld, and Barry Scheck. “Actual innocence: When justice goes wrong and how to make it right.” (2001).

Eggers, Dave, Lola Vollen, and Scott Turow. Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated. McSweeney’s, 2015.

Findley, Keith A. “Learning from our mistakes: A criminal justice commission to study wrongful convictions.” California Western Law Review 38, no. 2 (2002).

Garrett, Brandon L. Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Garrett, Brandon L. “Innocence, harmless error, and federal wrongful conviction law.” Wisconsin Law Review 35 (2005).

Garrett, Brandon L., and Peter J. Neufeld. “Invalid forensic science testimony and wrongful convictions.” Virginia Law Review (2009): 1-97.

Giannelli, Paul C. “Wrongful convictions and forensic science: the need to regulate crime labs.” North Carolina Law Review 86 (2011): 163.

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Gould, Jon B., and Richard A. Leo. “One hundred years later: Wrongful convictions after a century of research.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 100, no. 3 (2010).

Griffin, Lissa. “The correction of wrongful convictions: a comparative perspective.” American University International Law Review 16 (2001).

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Gross, Samuel R. “The Risks of Death: Why Erroneous Convictions are Common in Capital Cases.” Buff. L. Rev. 44 (1996): 469.

Gross, Samuel R., Chen Hu, Edward H. Kennedy, and Barbara O’Brien. “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111 (2014): 7230-7235. Accessed October 29, 2015. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1306417111.

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Harmon, Talia Roitberg. “Predictors of miscarriages of justice in capital cases.” Justice Quarterly 18, no. 4 (2001): 949-968.

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Horan, David. “The Innocence Commission: An Independent Review Board for Wrongful Convictions.” N. Ill. UL Rev. 20 (2000): 91.

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Huff, C. Ronald. “Wrongful convictions: The American experience.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 46, no. 2 (2004): 107-120.

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Huff, C. Ronald, and Martin Killias, eds. Wrongful Conviction: International Perspectives on Miscarriages of Justice. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

Huff, C. Ronald, and Martin Killias, eds. Wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice: causes and remedies in North American and European criminal justice systems. Routledge, 2013.

Innocents Database. Last modified October 15, 2015. http://forejustice.org/innocentsdatabase.htm.

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Ito, Kazuko. “Wrongful Convictions and Recent Criminal Justice Reform in Japan.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 80 (2011): 1245.

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Johnson, Calvin C. Exit to freedom. University of Georgia Press, 2003.

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Konečni, Vladimir J., and Ebbe B. Ebbesen. “Courtroom testimony by psychologists on eyewitness identification issues: Critical notes and reflections.” Law and Human Behavior 10, no. 1-2 (1986): 117.

Lando, Henrik. “Does wrongful conviction lower deterrence?” The Journal of Legal Studies 35, no. 2 (2006): 327-337.

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Leo, Richard A. “Rethinking the study of miscarriages of justice: Developing a criminology of wrongful conviction.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21, no. 3 (2005): 201-223.

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Loftus, Elizabeth. “Our changeable memories: Legal and practical implications.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4, no. 3 (2003): 231-234.

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Marshall, Lawrence C. “The Innocence Revolution and the Death Penalty.” Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 1 (2003): 573.

Martin, Dianne L. “Lessons about Justice from the Laboratory of Wrongful Convictions: Tunnel Vision, the Construction of Guilt and Informer Evidence.” UMKC L. Rev. 70 (2001): 847.

Martin, Dianne L. “The Police Role in Wrongful Convictions.” Wrongly convicted: Perspectives on failed justice (2001): 77.

McMunigal, Kevin C. “Guilty Pleas, Brady Disclosure, and Wrongful Convictions.” Case W. Res. L. Rev. 57 (2006): 651.

McMurtrie, Jacqueline. “The Role of the Social Sciences in Preventing Wrongful Convictions.” Am. Crim. L. Rev. 42 (2005): 1271.

Medwed, Daniel S. “Anatomy of a wrongful conviction: Theoretical implications and practical solutions.” Villanova Law Review 51 (2006): 05-37.

Medwed, Daniel S. “The Prosecutor as Minister of Justice: Preaching to the Unconverted from the Post-Conviction Pulpit.” Washington Law Review 84 (2009): 35.

Natapoff, Alexandra. “Beyond unreliable: How snitches contribute to wrongful convictions.” Golden Gate University Law Review (2006).

The National Registry of Exonerations. Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx.

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Northwestern Law. “Center on Wrongful Convictions.” Accessed October 29, 2015. http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/.

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Raeder, Myrna. “See No Evil: Wrongful Convictions and the Prosecutorial Ethics of Offering Testimony by Jailhouse Informants and Dishonest Experts.” Fordham Law Review 76 (2007).

Raeder, Myrna. “What Does Innocence Have to Do With It: A Commentary on Wrongful Convictions and Rationality.” L. Rev. MSU-DCL (2003): 1315.

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