Criminal Defense and Wrongful Convictions


In a recent speech accepting the Federal Bar Council’s Leaned Hand Medal, federal judge Lewis Kaplan focused on wrongful convictions and one of their leading causes – the quality of representation available to criminal defendants.

Bad or inadequate defense representation has played a role in many of the wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. In his speech, Kaplan identified four factors that contribute to this problem: the overworked and under-funded indigent defense system, the staggering economic cost of private representation, the lack of information available to defendants about their options, and the competence of hired lawyers

“We know from the Innocence Project that 237 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence alone of crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced. So we now know with scientific certainty what many have suspected for years. Our criminal justice system, no different from anything else that depends on inherently fallible human beings, makes mistakes. How many? No one knows. But consider this. In 2008, the number of persons incarcerated in the United States substantially exceeded 2 million. So if even one in 1,000 of those inmates was convicted mistakenly, there are more than 2,000 people behind bars in this country for crimes they didn't commit,” Kaplan said.

“We pride ourselves on the American system of justice, and we have much to be proud of. But we do not have a right to be smug or complacent. Our system of defending the poor is in a state of crisis in many parts of the country. We must respond to that crisis.”

Read the full text of Kaplan’s speech here.

(The New York Law Journal, 05/06/2009)

Learn more about how inadequate defense contributes to wrongful convictions.

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