Better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer,is rightly said by Willian Blackstone in his work Commentaries on the Laws of England. The Indian criminal justice system has been structured so that the guilty should be punished and the innocent should be provided justice.
Though it is detailed and drafted articulately, certain factors sometimes lead to injustice and convicting the innocents. Miscarriage or failure of justice means that the judiciary has not only convicted an innocent but also left a guilty free. The real purpose of the judiciary is to provide justice to people who have been wronged, but in certain cases, when the courts fail to protect the innocent, a miscarriage of justice happens.
Various steps have been taken by the judiciary to prevent wrongful convictions, but we still hear of cases where innocents have been convicted. Matters regarding wrongful conviction have now become a major issue which is being addressed by many countries.
An innocent has to spend years in prison, and then their case is squashed, thus depriving them of their livelihood for many years.Though compensation is provided by the government to the innocents most of the time, people do not realise the long-term repercussions of these wrongful convictions on the innocents. It becomes very difficult for the innocents to get back to their normal life even when the court has declared them not guilty.
In this paper, I have discussed the importance of this issue and why it needs to be addressed, a few factors that lead to the cause, some famous case laws in which this has happened, and lastly, the impact of wrongful convictions on the innocents.
Why is wrongful conviction a serious issue?
Allows the real culprit to walk away freely-Wrongful convictions are not only damaging to the innocents but also to the society as well as the victims with whom the crime has been committed. When an innocent is wrongly convicted, there is a high chance that the real culprit walks away freely from the law and their punishment. Not only is this unfair to the victim, but it also gives the culprit another chance to commit heinous crimes.
“In a comprehensive study of the impact of wrongful convictions on victims funded by the United States Department of Justice, crime victims in wrongful conviction cases reported feeling guilty for the additional crimes the actual offender was able to commit while free.” (Bishop and Osler 1044). This study also adds to the sufferings of the innocents. A case is discussed below to substantiate on my claim:
In 1983, in Illinois, a child named Jeanine Nicarico was found two days later after her disappearance about seven miles from her home. From the postmortem, it was found that she was sexually abused and then clubbed to death. The police have suspected and arrested two men, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez. They were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.
The actual killer, Brian Dugan, later confessed to the crime. When Dugan was free and the other two men had been arrested, Dugan had committed various other crimes which he later confessed to. He had raped and drowned a women and also was charged with three more sexual assaults and a murder of a sever year old (Bishop and Osler 1042). The prosecutors were shocked to know that they had convicted innocent men. Both Cruz and Hernandez were acquitted later.
This shows the implication wrongful convictions have on society and how it can lead to more heinous crimes. What is more baffling is that the court and the judiciary, which is supposed to provide justice, is because of their miscalculations that injustices are being faced by many.
Another victim of the system arises- the wrongfully indicted
The person who has been wrongfully convicted is another victim of the perpetrator. The actions of the real culprit has not only affected the victims but also the one who has been wrongfully accused. The innocent have not only been a victim of the perpetrator but also the victim of the system.
They are the victims of the system because sometimes, due to the inefficiency of the government, an innocent is behind bars. In some cases, the innocents have to spend many years in jail before the court dismisses the charges against them. The people who have been wrongfully acquitted lose their means of living for a long period. Even after they have been acquitted, it is difficult for the society to accept them, and it is difficult for the people to have their normal life back.
Drainage of the resources
When a person is wrongfully convicted, many resources of the state have been drained, which could have been used to help other crime victims. Firstly, a lot of court time is wasted just to prove that an innocent is guilty, and secondly, when the court provides compensation to the wrongly convicted person, the sum could be used for other purposes. “In the case discussed above the State of Illinois had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate the men for the time spent in custody when they were, in fact, innocent.” (Bishop and Osler 1045)
All these points prove the importance of the prevention of wrongful convictions. It also throws light on the fact that this is the exact opposite of what our Indian criminal justice system aims to achieve. Various steps by the government need to be taken for the eradication of wrongful convictions.
What are the causes that lead to wrongful conviction?
Here are some factors stated that lead to the wrongful conviction of innocents:
Mistake of the eyewitness
Eyewitnesses play a crucial part in the determination of the convicts, and their words carry a lot of value. Sometimes, their statements can lead to wrongful convictions of innocents even though it happen in good faith. Mistakes by eyewitnesses are caused unknowingly due to various reasons. One of the reasons can be stress, which influences a person’s observation of an incident.
“When confronted with a gun or other weapon during a violent crime, for example, the victim may focus so heavily on the firearm that he or she cannot take in and remember the details of the perpetrator.” (Gould and Leo 841). These kinds of mistakes, though, happen accidentally; they contribute majorly to the judgement of a case. “As the research of others has documented, in 70% of the 250 wrongful convictions, the conviction hinged on eye-witness testimony that was later documented to be faulty” (Smith and Hattery 84). Though eyewitness identification plays a major role in judicial rulings, it needs to be used carefully with precaution.
False confessions basically mean a confession of a crime by a person who is innocent and has not committed the crime. The basic question would arise why would an innocent confess to a crime that they have not committed? There are no fixed reasons for this, but some factors can be guessed which play a role in determining the outcome.
One of the major reasons can be coercion by police when police use harsh interrogation methods. It becomes difficult for some people to withstand that, and thus, being in a vulnerable state, they confess to a crime that they have not committed. For example the film Jai Bhim (directed by T. J. Gnanavel) shows that police use inhuman ways on the lower tribes just to hear a confession, even when they have not done anything. These acts of the authorities often lead to false confessions from the innocents.
Confirmation bias means that someone believes something to be true and then finds evidence to support their claim. One of the major beliefs of the judiciary is that it is innocent until proven guilty, but in reality, to what extent do the authorities follow that? It has been seen that the more the police and the prosecutors believe in a person’s wrongs, the less likely they are to consider alternative circumstances of the case.
“As Findley and Scott explain more comprehensively, when criminal justice professionals “focus on a suspect, select and filter the evidence that will ‘build a case’ for conviction while ignoring or suppressing evidence that points away from guilt,” they are at risk of “locking on” to the wrong suspect and inadvertently leading to his continued prosecution and conviction.” (Gould and Leo 851). This happens when the police find one piece of evidence that connects them to the innocent and often ignores other evidence which can lead to alternative paths and suspects.
Discrimination on various grounds
“A study by Michigan State University has shown that Black prisoners are fifty per cent more likely to be innocent than others and they even spend a longer duration in jail.” (Gaur and Diwakar 3). This same thing is happening in India with Dalits, where they are being convicted falsely as well as for longer durations than other people from different casts. These wrongful convictions based on caste and race have always been there.
“I was framed for being a Dalit, 6 years of my life were taken away from me” This statement is said by a man (he does not want to reveal his name). This man’s life was turned upside down because he was wrongfully convicted of a crime that he did not even commit. He also had to spend 6 years in jail, after which the charges against him were squashed (MohanJ). This shows the atrocity that innocents have to face due to the corrupt system.
Here are some case laws in which wrongful conviction has happened.
Mohammad Nisaruddin Case
In this case, a 19-year-old boy was charged under the Terrorist Disruptive Act (TADA). The issue came before the Supreme Court after Ajmer Court had sentenced him to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court squashed all the charges against him. This happened after the child had spent 23 years in prison under false accusations. Another point to be noticed is that, in this case, he was not given any compensation from the court.
Habil Sindhu vs. State of Odisha
In this case, the man had spent almost 19 years in jail and was charged with a triple murder case. The additional district and sessions judge had sentenced him to life, but after this, an appeal was filed in the high court. The high court dismissed all the charges against him when they found no strong evidence against him. He in a statement later told the media that though his family is not accepting him today, he will try hard to gain their trust back (Suffian).
Ankur Maruti Shinde v State of Maharashtra
In the above-mentioned case, the Supreme Court had condemned 6 persons to death on charges of murder and rape of a woman and her 15-year-old daughter. Out of the 6 persons, one was a juvenile at the time of sentencing. These wrongfully convicted men belonged to a socially backward community. The eyewitness had identified the other four men as the culprits, but the police had not investigated any further. Therefore, these 6 men were the victims of an inefficient government. The court had ordered the state to pay each one of 5 lakhs as compensation after they had spent 16 years in jail for a crime they did not even commit.
Adambhai Sulemanbhai Ajmeri v. State of Gujarat
In this case, six men had been convicted by the High Court of Gujarat for the attack on the Akshardham temple. After spending 11 years in jail, the Supreme Court has acquitted them. Though the court had squashed all the charges, those six men will always have the tag of terrorist.
Types of Offences Represented Among Known Cases of Wrongful Conviction
The above table shows the data collected during research by Arye Rattner in their paper Convicted but Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and the Criminal Justice System (Rattner 288). The data shows the types of offences distributed among wrongful convictions that take place according to the Union Crime Report (UCR). This data does not indicate any specific pattern for wrongful convictions, but it can be clearly seen that wrongful convictions happen in almost all types of offences.
Effects of wrongful conviction
Though the court gives the convicts compensation, it cannot give them their previous lifestyle. There is more loss than the court takes into account after the acquittal of a person. A change in personality was noticed among many people who had spent a lot of time in prison. When researchers asked the families of the innocents, most of them said they observed a drastic change in their behaviour. Two mothers said of their sons: “He is like a stranger to you…. He always used to be affectionate. Now he can’t express emotion, he can’t sit and talk. He jumps about, he is unsettled. Prison has changed him. His personality has changed” (Grounds 22).
In some of the cases, the men were also diagnosed with PTSD. The convicts had problems adjusting to the outside world after their release, especially in cases where they had no family or friends. These people had problems carrying out normal activities in the initial days of their release. In one of the studies, one man said that when he was walking in a crowded place, he always felt that there were two guards at his shoulders because he was always escorted that way (Grounds 28). Be it walking in a crowded place or buying things from a shop, the men had trouble performing their duties.
Today’s victim is not just a victim of crime but can also be a victim of the apathy of the criminal justice system (Sharma 89). Wrongful convictions do not arise just because of the government’s inefficiency but also from the lack of responsibility of the public. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution clearly states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”
Miscarriage of justice nullifies the aim of the Constitution and is a serious issue that needs to be tackled. It not only uproots the livelihood of a human being but also fails to deliver justice to the victim. There was a report submitted by the Law Commission of India to the government of India that gives certain recommendations to tackle these wrongful convictions. The report mentions setting up a special court for claiming compensation so there is no delay and also methods through which compensation can be provided. We can only hope that these steps help in eradicating this act and help victims in times of need.
- BISHOP, JEANNE, and MARK OSLER. “PROSECUTORS AND VICTIMS: WHY WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS MATTER.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973), vol. 105, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1031–47.
- GOULD, JON B., and RICHARD A. LEO. “ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER: WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS AFTER A CENTURY OF RESEARCH.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973), vol. 100, no. 3, 2010, pp. 825–68
- Grounds, Adrian T. “Understanding the Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment.” Crime and Justice, vol. 32, 2005, pp. 1–58.
- Rattner, Arye. “Convicted but Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and the Criminal Justice System.” Law and Human Behavior, vol. 12, no. 3, 1988, pp. 283–93.
- Sharma, Anupama. “Public Prosecutors, Victims and the Expectation Gap: An Analysis of Indian Jurisdiction.” Socio-Legal Review, vol 13(2), no 0973-5216, 2017, pp 88-107.
- Smith, Earl, and Angela J. Hattery. “Race, Wrongful Conviction & Exoneration.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2011, pp. 74–94.
- Mohan J, Anand. “I was framed for being a Dalit, 6 years of my life were taken away from me.” The Indian Express, 8 September 2021.
- Suffan, Mohammad. “An Odisha man, wrongfully convicted in a triple murder case, freed after 19 years in jail.” India Today, 17 December 2021.
- Gaur, Ritendra, and Diwakar, Dheeraj. “Innocent behind Bars: Challenges and Remedies.” Manupatra, 27 December 2021.
This article has been contributed by Tushika Agarwal.
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