Recent TN exoneration underscores risk of wrongful convictions

The DNA exoneration of a wrongly accused Tennessee man calls attention to common factors that can contribute to false convictions.

Many people in Chattanooga may believe the risk of wrongful convictions is relatively low, given the way the criminal justice system is structured. However, statistics indicate that it's not uncommon for people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit. These convictions often occur due to known risk factors that could have been mitigated. The recent exoneration of a Tennessee man who was convicted of serious sex crimes illustrates how wrongful convictions can occur and go uncaught for years.

A tenuous match

The man was accused of raping a minor in 1999, according to The Tennessean. The alleged victim, who lived in the other half of the duplex where the man lived, disappeared one night and later told police that the man had sexually assaulted her.

An analysis of semen stains found on the victim's underwear revealed only one genetic marker out of the 13 tested that conclusively matched the man's DNA. Based on that match, the likelihood of the man being the offender was as low as 1 in 290, according to an analyst from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who testified during the trial.

Despite this limited evidence, and the man's statement of innocence, he was convicted in 2000 of rape and two other charges. In 2008, the DNA evidence was tested again. The new testing revealed that the man's DNA did not match the DNA found on the victim's clothing.

Based on this new evidence, the man was released from prison in 2011. However, in 2013, the state court of appeals called for new trials to consider the man's charges in light of the updated evidence. In April 2014, the man finally learned that the charges against him had been dropped.

Tennessee wrongful convictions

Cases like this man's are not as uncommon as many people may believe. According to The Tennessean, the National Registry of Exonerations reports that, since 1989, more than 1,500 people in the U.S. have been exonerated. Fourteen of these exonerations occurred in Tennessee, with some cases involving serious charges, including assault and murder.

The Innocence Project reports that there are several common factors that contribute to false convictions. Many of the DNA exonerations that have occurred since 1989 have involved at least one of the following:

  • Forensic issues - improper practices, the use of forensic techniques that are not scientifically proven or outright misconduct contributed to 49 percent of wrongful convictions.
  • Eyewitness errors - 72 percent of wrongful convictions involved misidentification. More than half of those misidentifications occurred when there were racial disparities between the eyewitness and the alleged offender.
  • Use of informants - informants may have various incentives to name someone as the perpetrator, even if they know the identification is wrong. Informant testimony played a role in 18 percent of wrongful convictions.
  • Self-incrimination - in 27 percent of wrongful convictions, accused offenders made self-incriminating comments or even confessed.

It is important for people facing criminal charges, regardless of the validity of those charges, to recognize that these factors may contribute to a conviction. It is essential for people accused of criminal activity to protect their rights, rather than assuming the evidence will be interpreted favorably.

Anyone facing criminal charges in Tennessee should seek advice from a defense attorney as soon as possible.

Keywords: wrongful, conviction, arrest