Understanding Wrongful Convictions: What You Need to Know
Wrongful convictions can happen in many different ways. Witnesses may lie. Prosecutors may hide evidence. Defense counsel may be incompetent. The jury may ignore the evidence. The court may allow junk science to be admitted. The court may prevent the defendant from presenting a complete defense.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, perjury is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Over 60% of all exonerations involved perjury or false accusations. Just behind that is official misconduct, which was present in 59% of all cases. Nearly 30% of cases involved mistaken eyewitness testimony. And nearly one-quarter involved false or misleading forensic evidence.
Most Wrongful Convictions are Based on False Testimony
Thus, the vast majority of wrongful convictions were based on false testimony. And yet most criminal trials still rely solely on eyewitness testimony to send people to prison. The appellate courts have made it clear: the testimony of a single eyewitness, without anything other evidence, can be legally sufficient to support a conviction.
Whether the issue is false testimony, junk science, official misconduct, or ineffective assistance of counsel, most causes of wrongful convictions can’t be addressed on direct appeal because they can’t be proved just by looking at the trial record. The appellate courts presume that juries found witnesses credible, that the trial court properly acted as a “gatekeeper” in admitting scientific evidence, that evidence was timely disclosed, and that defense counsel performed competently.
Writ of Habeas Corpus
To attack a wrongful conviction, a defendant in Texas must typically rely on a writ of habeas corpus. This process comes after a conviction is final. A writ of habeas corpus allows a defendant to present new evidence that isn’t in the trial record. After a thorough investigation by an experienced writ attorney, the defendant may be able to prove that a witness lied. That the state hid exculpatory evidence or that the defendant’s trial attorney was ineffective.
The Appeal Hearing
Once the defendant files a writ application that alleges one or more of these things, he must submit evidence that proves the allegations. The trial court can then hold a live hearing or decide the issues based on written documents, such as affidavits. The trial court will then make findings of fact and conclusions of law. If the conviction was for a felony, the trial court sends its findings to the Court of Criminal Appeals. It is the ultimate factfinder in felony writs.
A defendant typically gets one shot to challenge a wrongful conviction with a writ of habeas corpus. After an initial writ is decided, a defendant cannot file a subsequent writ unless it is based on newly applicable law, newly discovered facts, or a prima facie showing actual innocence. In other words, if a defendant could have raised an issue in his first writ but didn’t, he couldn’t come back later for a second bite at the apple. To have the best chances at challenging a wrongful conviction, it is important to have an experienced appellate attorney who can include all possible issues in the first writ application.