October 2nd is International Wrongful Conviction Day. This day began as an effort of the Innocence Network – an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted – and is used to raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful conviction for innocent people and their families.
I have been interested in wrongful convictions since working as an intern with the Georgia Innocence Project (“GIP”) in 2010. I now serve on the board of directors for GIP and spent Wrongful Conviction Day speaking at a local high school with Jimmie Gardener. Jimmie spent 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit after a government witness lied about the forensic evidence in his case. Although the blood evidence scientifically excluded Jimmie as the perpetrator of the crime, the government serologist took the stand and said that Jimmie could have committed the offense. Even after the lies of the government witness were exposed and Jimmie filed meritorious appeals, he still sat in jail for 21 years, waiting for relief. His story is one of tireless perseverance and eventual victory, and a reminder that the government does sometimes engage in misconduct – even egregious, reprehensible misconduct.
There are other underlying causes of wrongful convictions besides government misconduct, however. Eyewitness misidentification, invalid forensic science, false confessions, jailhouse informant testimony, and inadequate defense lawyering have all contributed to innocent people being sent to jail for crimes they did not commit. To date, there have been close to 2,600 exonerations of the wrongfully convicted, though this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that 3-5% of those incarcerated are innocent of the crimes for which they are imprisoned.
To learn more about the work of the Georgia Innocence Project, check out their website.