Blackstone’s ratio, developed by jurist William Blackstone, states that: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.”
David Milgaard, Leighton Hay and Steven Truscott have all been wrongfully convicted of serious criminal offences in Canada. Collectively, these three spent 45 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Romeo Phillion was the longest serving wrongfully convicted defendant in Canada, serving 31 years in prison. In 2009, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned his murder conviction and ordered a new trial because of a missing police report that provided an alibi for Phillion. He passed away in 2015.
Rates of wrongful conviction
It is difficult to obtain a complete picture of wrongful conviction in Canada, as there may be many who are in prison but are not guilty.
In the United States, it is estimated that between four to six per cent of those incarcerated did not commit the crimes they are serving time for. Assuming this rate, that would mean for every 20 people found guilty, one is wrongfully convicted. Canada relies on volunteer organizations to review claims of wrongful conviction. Currently, there are 90 cases under review by Innocence Canada.
Innocence Canada has helped exonerate 24 innocent people since 1993. The Innocence Project in the U.S. has helped exonerate 375 people, with 21 of them serving time on death row for crimes they did not commit.
Innocence Canada is a non-profit organization focused on “identifying, advocating for, and exonerating individuals convicted of a crime that they did not commit.” They also work to prevent miscarriages of justice through legal education and reform.
In the U.S., the Innocence Project aims to “free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone.”
Causes of wrongful conviction
In 1983, Thomas Sophonow was wrongfully convicted of the murder of 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel in a Winnipeg donut shop. This wrongful conviction led to the Sophonow Inquiry by the Manitoba government to better understand how this wrongful conviction occurred and recommendations for reducing the likelihood of wrongful convictions occurring in the future.
Nine main causes of wrongful conviction have been identified by Innocence Canada:
- eyewitness identification error, when a witness identifies an innocent suspect;
- false confessions, when an individual falsely confesses to a crime they did not commit;
- Mr. Big stings, an approach where undercover police aim to elicit confessions from suspects;
- false guilty pleas, when an individual accepts a shortened sentence for a more minor crime;
- tunnel vision, when investigators focus on only one theory or suspect instead of exploring other options;
- systemic discrimination, in a system or structure with inherent bias;
- evolution of and errors in forensic science, for example, like using invalidated procedures such as bite mark analysis;
- jailhouse informant testimony, when a cell mate states the accused confessed to them;
- professional misconduct, when the prosecution deliberately suppresses exculpatory or exonerating evidence.
Eyewitness misidentification has been found to be the leading cause of known wrongful conviction, contributing to approximately 70 per cent of known wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing.
Perceptions of the exoneree
Not only do those wrongfully convicted lose their freedom while incarcerated, if they are exonerated, they will need to reintegrate into society. But how does society perceive the exoneree?
We conducted two studies to examine the perceptions of wrongfully convicted individuals after exoneration. Participants read a mock news story detailing the wrongful conviction and were asked to rate their perceptions of the individual.
In our first study, we asked whether an exoneree would be perceived differently when they were wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, armed robbery or murder.
We were also interested in whether the contributing factor — eyewitness misidentification, false confession, jailhouse informant testimony and faulty forensic evidence — for wrongful conviction influenced perceptions.
In our second study, we added the racial identity of the exoneree.
Our findings suggest that factors about the case can influence how people perceive exonerees. Participants perceived exonerees more negatively when the exoneree provided a false confession, which in turn influenced perceptions of whether the exoneree should receive compensation.
The type of crime also influenced perceptions, such that being wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault was more detrimental to the exoneree when compared to other types of crimes.
Race also matters. When the exoneree was described as Black, participants believed racial profiling was occurring more so than when the exoneree was white. When the individual was white and was convicted of sexual assault, participants reported wanting more social distance from him.
Intriguingly, sexual assault may be perceived to be a crime perpetrated by whites. It is estimated that approximately 60 per cent of perpetrators of sexual violence are white.
Overall, details about a case can influence how the exoneree is perceived, even though an exoneree did not commit the crime they were accused or found guilty of.
Importantly, participants were likely to believe that the exoneree was innocent, suggesting that individuals trust that errors in the justice system can happen.
Miscarriages of justice occur at rates that are difficult to estimate. However, wrongful conviction rates have been placed at approximately one in 20 defendants.
Sadly, not only does the innocent individual experience the hardship of the allegations, charges and the loss of their freedom, but post-exoneration also may pose challenges. Stigma associated with some crimes such as sexual assault can remain.
Given mistaken identification is the leading contributing factor in known wrongful conviction cases, policy reform should be directed at how identification evidence should be collected to increase accuracy.