Miscarriages of justice
|Criminal trials and convictions|
|Rights of the accused|
|Related areas of law|
A miscarriage of justice primarily is the conviction and punishment of a person for a crime he or she did not commit. The term can also apply to errors in the other direction—"errors of impunity", and to civil cases. Most criminal justice systems have some means to overturn, or "quash", a wrongful conviction, but this is often difficult to achieve. In some instances a wrongful conviction is not overturned for several years, or until after the innocent person has been executed, released from custody, or has died.
"Miscarriage of justice" is sometimes synonymous with wrongful conviction, referring to a conviction reached in an unfair or disputed trial. Wrongful convictions are frequently cited by death penalty opponents as cause to eliminate death penalties to avoid executing innocent persons. In recent years, DNA evidence has been used to clear many people falsely convicted.
While a miscarriage of justice is a Type I error for falsely identifying culpability, an error of impunity would be a Type II error of failing to find a culpable person guilty. However, the term "miscarriage of justice" is often used to describe the latter type as well.
The Scandinavian languages (viz. Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) have a word, the Swedish variant of which is justitiemord, which literally translates as "justice murder." The term exists in several languages and was originally used for cases where the accused was convicted, executed, and later cleared after death. With capital punishment decreasing, the expression has acquired an extended meaning, namely any conviction for a crime not committed by the convicted. The retention of the term "murder" represents both universal abhorrence against wrongful convictions and awareness of how destructive wrongful convictions are. Some Slavic languages have also the word (justičná vražda in Slovak, justiční vražda in Czech) which literally translates as "justice murder", but it is used for Judicial murder, while miscarriage of justice is "justiční omyl" in Czech, implying an error of the justice system, not a deliberate manipulation.
Also, the term travesty of justice is sometimes used for a gross, deliberate miscarriage of justice. The usage of the term in a specific case is, however, inherently biased due to different opinions about the case. Show trials (not in the sense of high publicity, but in the sense of lack of regard to the actual legal procedure and fairness), due to their character, often lead to such travesties.
The concept of miscarriage of justice has important implications for standard of review, in that an appellate court will often only exercise its discretion to correct plain error when a miscarriage of justice (or "manifest injustice") would otherwise occur.
Causes of miscarriages of justice include:
- Plea bargains that offer incentives for the innocent to plead guilty, sometimes called an innocent prisoner's dilemma
- Confirmation bias on the part of investigators
- Withholding or destruction of evidence by police or prosecution
- Fabrication of evidence or outright perjury by police (see testilying), or prosecution witnesses (e.g., Charles Randal Smith)
- Biased editing of evidence
- Prejudice towards the class of people to which the defendant belongs
- Misidentification of the perpetrator by witnesses and/or victims
- Overestimation/underestimation of the evidential value of expert testimony
- Contaminated evidence
- Faulty forensic tests
- False confessions due to police pressure or psychological weakness
- Misdirection of a jury by a judge during trial
- Perjured evidence by the real guilty party or their accomplices (frameup)
- Perjured evidence by supposed victim or their accomplices
- Conspiracy between court of appeal judges and prosecutors to uphold conviction of innocent
Risk of miscarriages of justice is one of the main arguments against the death penalty. Where condemned persons are executed promptly after conviction, the most significant effect of a miscarriage of justice is irreversible. Wrongly executed people nevertheless occasionally receive posthumous pardons—which essentially void the conviction—or have their convictions quashed. Many death penalty states hold condemned persons for ten or more years before execution, so that any new evidence that might acquit them (or, at least, provide reasonable doubt) will have had time to surface.
Even when a wrongly convicted person is not executed, years in prison can have a substantial, irreversible effect on the person and their family. The risk of miscarriage of justice is therefore also an argument against long sentences, like life sentence, and cruel sentence conditions.
Wrongful convictions appear at first to be "rightful" arrests and subsequent convictions, and also include a public statement about a particular crime having occurred, as well as a particular individual or individuals having committed that crime. If the conviction turns out to be a miscarriage of justice, then one or both of these statements is ultimately deemed to be false. During this time between the miscarriage of justice and its correction, the public holds false beliefs about the occurrence of a crime, the perpetrator of a crime, or both. While the public audience of a miscarriage of justice certainly varies, they may in some cases be as large as an entire nation or multitude of nations.
In cases where a large-scale audience is unknowingly witness to a miscarriage of justice, the news-consuming public may develop false beliefs about the nature of crime itself. It may also cause the public to falsely believe that certain types of crime exist, or that certain types of people tend to commit these crimes, or that certain crimes are more commonly prevalent than they actually are. Thus, wrongful convictions can ultimately mold a society's popular beliefs about crime. Because our understanding of crime is socially constructed, it has been shaped by many factors other than its actual occurrence.
Mass media may also be faulted for distorting the public perception of crime by over-representing certain races and genders as criminals and victims, and for highlighting more sensational and invigorating types of crimes as being more newsworthy. The way a media presents crime-related issues may have an influence not only on a society's fear of crime but also on its beliefs about the causes of criminal behavior and desirability of one or another approach to crime control. Ultimately, this may have a significant impact on critical public beliefs about emerging forms of crime such as cybercrime, global crime, and terrorism.
Cases in specific countries
The Schiedammerpark murder case, as well as the similarly overturned case of the Putten murder, led to the installation of the "Posthumus I committee", which analyzed what had gone wrong in the Schiedammerpark Murder case, and came to the conclusion that confirmation bias led the police to ignore and misinterpret scientific evidence (DNA). Subsequently, the so-called Posthumus II committee investigated whether other such cases might have occurred. The committee received 25 applications from concerned and involved scientists, and decided to consider three of them further: the Lucia de Berk case, the Ina Post case, and the Enschede incest case. In these three cases, independent researchers (professors Wagenaar, van Koppen, Israëls, Crombag, and Derksen) claim confirmation bias and misuse of complex scientific evidence led to miscarriages of justice.
Norwegian police, courts, and prison authorities have been criticized and convicted on several occasions by the European Court of Human Rights for breaking the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
However, the maximum penalty in Norway is normally no longer than 21 years. Thereby, most of the victims have been acquitted after their release from prison.
The Constitution of Spain guarantees compensation in cases of miscarriage of justice.
In the United Kingdom a jailed person whose conviction is quashed may be paid compensation for the time they were incarcerated. This is currently limited by statute to a maximum sum of £500,000. See also Category:Overturned convictions in the United Kingdom.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Until 2005, the parole system assumed all convicted persons were guilty, and poorly handled those who were not. To be paroled, a convicted person had to sign a document in which, among other things, they confessed to the crime for which they were convicted. Someone who refused to sign this declaration spent longer in jail than someone who signed it. Some wrongly convicted people, such as the Birmingham Six, were refused parole for this reason. In 2005 the system changed, and began to parole prisoners who never admitted guilt.
English law has no official means of correcting a "perverse" verdict (conviction of a defendant on the basis of insufficient evidence). Appeals are based exclusively on new evidence or errors by the judge or prosecution (but not the defense), or jury irregularities. A reversal occurred, however, in the 1930s when William Herbert Wallace was exonerated of the murder of his wife. There is no right to a trial without jury (except during the troubles in Northern Ireland or in the case where there is a significant risk of jury-tampering, such as organised crime cases, when a judge or judges presided without a jury).
During the early 1990s, a series of high-profile cases turned out to be miscarriages of justice. Many resulted from police fabricating evidence to convict people they thought were guilty, or simply to get a high conviction rate. The West Midlands Serious Crime Squad became notorious for such practices, and was disbanded in 1989. In 1997 the Criminal Cases Review Commission was established specifically to examine possible miscarriages of justice. However, it still requires either strong new evidence of innocence, or new proof of a legal error by the judge or prosecution. For example, merely insisting you are innocent and the jury made an error, or stating there was not enough evidence to prove guilt, is not enough. It is not possible to question the jury's decision or query on what matters it was based. The waiting list for cases to be considered for review is at least two years on average.
In 2002, the NI Court of Appeal made an exception to who could avail of the right to a fair trial in R v Walsh.
- "... if a defendant has been denied a fair trial it will almost be inevitable that the conviction will be regarded unsafe, the present case in our view constitutes an exception to the general rule. ... the conviction is to be regarded as safe, even if a breach of Article 6(1) were held to have occurred in the present case." see Christy Walsh (Case)
Reflecting Scotland's own legal system, which differs from that of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) was established in April 1999. All cases accepted by the SCCRC are subjected to a robust and thoroughly impartial review before a decision on whether or not to refer to the High Court of Justiciary is taken.
A list of numerous death sentence miscarriages is at
In 1959, 14-year-old Steven Truscott was convicted of raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl. Originally sentenced to death by hanging, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released on parole in 1969, and was freed from his parole restrictions in 1974. In 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned Truscott's conviction, based on a reexamination of forensic evidence.
In 1992, Guy Paul Morin was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl and was sentenced to life imprisonment (the death penalty had been abolished in Canada by this time). In 1995, new testing of DNA evidence showed Morin could not have been the murderer, and the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned his conviction.
- The Innocence Project – A US-based nonprofit organization dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted
- Innocence Network UK (INUK) – An organisation to facilitate casework on alleged wrongful convictions by innocence projects
- Innocent.org.uk – Website of UK cases of alleged and proven miscarriages of justice