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Miscarriage of justice

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A miscarriage of justice is primarily the conviction and punishment of a person for a crime that he or she did not commit. The term can also be applied to errors in the other direction — "errors of impunity" — and to civil cases, but those usages are rarer, though the occurrences appear to be much more common. Most criminal justice systems have some means to overturn, or "quash", a wrongful conviction, but this is often difficult to achieve. The most serious instances occur when a wrongful conviction is not overturned for several years, or until after the innocent person has been executed or died in jail.

"Miscarriage of justice" is sometimes synonymous with wrongful conviction, referring to a conviction reached in an unfair or disputed trial. Wrongful convictions are frequently cited by death penalty opponents as cause to eliminate death penalties to avoid executing innocent persons. In recent years DNA evidence has been used to clear many people falsely convicted.

General issues

Causes of miscarriages of justice include:

  • withholding or destruction of evidence by police or prosecution
  • confirmation bias on the part of investigators
  • fabrication of evidence
  • editing of evidence
  • poor identification
  • overestimation of the evidential value of expert testimony
  • contaminated evidence
  • faulty forensic tests
  • false confessions due to police pressure or psychological instability
  • misdirection by a judge during trial
  • perjurious evidence by the real guilty party or his or her accomplices
  • perjurious evidence by the supposed victim or his or her accomplices
  • perjurious evidence by police officers or their accomplices
  • false evidence of confession given by jailhouse informants
  • errors of due process and errors of impunity
  • failure or incompetence of the defence

Often, whether a case is in fact a miscarriage of justice remains controversial for a long time. The criminal justice system in most countries is also predisposed against changing its mind, only overturning a wrong conviction when the evidence against the conviction is overwhelming. The result is that many wrongly-convicted people spend many years in jail before their convictions are quashed and they are released.

The risk of miscarriages of justice is one of the main arguments against the death penalty. Where condemned persons are executed promptly after conviction, the most significant effect of a miscarriage of justice is irreversible. (Wrongly-executed people are nevertheless occasionally posthumously pardoned — which is essentially a null action — or have their convictions quashed.) Many states that still practice the death penalty now routinely hold condemned persons for ten years or more before execution, to allow time for a miscarriage of justice to be discovered.

Even when a wrongly-convicted person is not executed, spending years in jail often has an effect on the person and his or her family that is irreversible and substantial. With current forms of criminal punishment, it is not possible to reverse the effects of punishment already endured; only the remaining portion of the sentence, including legal disabilities applying to previously-convicted but released persons, can be undone.

Cases in numerous countries

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

In the United Kingdom a jailed person whose conviction is quashed may be paid compensation for the time they were incarcerated.

It was a noted problem that the parole system assumes that all convicted persons are actually guilty, and it poorly handled those who are not. In order to be paroled, a convict was required to sign a document in which, among other things, they confessed to the crime for which they were convicted. Some wrongly convicted people, such as the Birmingham Six, therefore refused parole, and ended up spending longer in jail than a genuinely guilty person would have. In 2005 the system changed in this respect, and a handful of prisoners started to be paroled without ever admitting guilt.

In the event of a "perverse" that verdict involves the conviction of a defendant who should not have been convicted on the basis of the evidence presented, English law has no means of correcting this error: appeals being based exclusively upon new evidence or errors by the judge or prosecution, (but not the defence), or because of jury irregularities. This assumes that juries are perfect and do not make mistakes.

During the early 1990s there was a series of high-profile cases revealed to have been miscarriages of justice. Many resulted from police fabricating evidence, in order to convict the person they thought was guilty, or simply to convict anyone in order to get a high conviction rate. The West Midlands Serious Crime Squad became notorious for such practices, and was disbanded in 1989. In 1997 the Criminal Cases Review Commission [1] was established specifically in order to examine possible miscarriages of justice. See, for example:

  • the Darvell brothers
  • Danny McNamee
  • the M25 Three
  • Jonathan Jones
  • Sheila Bowler

Other miscarriages include:

  • Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill were hanged in 1679 at Greenberry Hill on false evidence for the unsolved murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey.
  • Adolph (or Adolf) Beck, whose notorious wrongful conviction in 1896 led to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.
  • Timothy Evans' wife and young daughter were killed in 1949, and Evans was convicted of killing of his daughter and hanged. It was later found that the real murderer was Reg Christie, another tenant in the same house, who eventually killed six women. Evans was first person in Britain to receive a posthumous free pardon.
  • Derek Bentley, executed for murdering a police officer. The charge was based on the fact that during a police chase, he shouted to an armed friend 'Let him have it'. There was doubt about whether this phrase meant shoot the officer (as a phrase common in gangster movies), or if it literally meant to give the gun to the officer. Derek was also mentally retarded, with a mental age of 11, but English law at the time didn't have a notion of diminished responsibility on the grounds of retardation.
  • Stephen Downing was convicted of the murder of Wendy Sewell in a Bakewell churchyard in 1973. The 17-year-old had a reading age of 11 and worked at the cemetery as a gardener. The police made him sign a confession that he was unable to read. The case gained international notoriety as the "Bakewell Tart" murder. After spending 27 years in prison, Stephen Downing was released on bail in February of 2001, pending the result of an appeal. His conviction was finally overturned in January 2002.
  • John Joseph Boyle aged 18 was convicted under the pretences of an alleged confession to membership of the I.R.A possession of a gun and murder of a policeman he was sentenced to twelve years inprisonment when released he underwent a long fight to prove his innocence in 2003—his conviction was quashed but has been denied compensation.
  • Andrew Evans served more than 25 years for the murder of 14-year-old Judith Roberts. He confessed to the 1972 murder after seeing the girl's face in a dream. His conviction was overturned in 1997.
  • In 1974 Judith Ward was convicted of murder of several people caused by a number of IRA bombings 1973. She was finally released in 1992.
  • The Birmingham Six were wrongly convicted in 1975 of planting two bombs in pubs in Birmingham in 1974 which killed 21 people and injured 182. They were finally released in 1991.
  • The Guildford Four were wrongly convicted in 1975 of being members of the Provisional IRA and planting bombs in two Guildford pubs which killed four people. They served nearly 15 years in prison before being released in 1989. (See Tony Blair's apology under The Maguire Seven below.)
  • The Maguire Seven were convicted in 1976 of offences related to the Guildford and Woolwich bombings of 1974. They served sentences ranging from 5 to 10 years. Giuseppe Conlon died in prison. Their convictions were quashed in 1991. On 9 February 2005 British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a public apology to the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four for the miscarriages of justice they had suffered. He said: "I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and such an injustice. They deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated."
  • Stefan Kiszko was convicted in 1976 of the sexual assault and murder of an 11-year old Lesley Molseed in 1976. He spent 16 years in prison before he was released in 1992, after a long campaign by his mother. He died of a heart attack the following year at the age of 44. His mother died six months later.
  • The Bridgewater Four were convicted in 1979 of murdering Carl Bridgewater, a 13-year-old paper boy who was shot on his round when he disturbed robbers at a farm in Staffordshire. Patrick Molloy died in jail in 1981. The remaining three were released in 1997.
  • The Cardiff Three, Steven Miller, Yusef Abdullahi and Tony Paris were falsely jailed for the murder of prostitute Lynette White, stabbed more than 50 times in a frenzied attack in a flat above a betting shop in Cardiff's Butetown area on Valentine's Day 1988, in 1990 and later cleared on appeal. In 2003, Jeffrey Gafoor was jailed for life for the murder. The breakthrough was due to modern DNA techniques used on evidence taken from the crime scene. Subsequently, in 2005, 9 retired Police Officers and 3 serving Officers were arrested and questioned for false imprisonment, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and misconduct in public office.
  • Peter Fell, a former hospital porter, described in the media as a "serial confessor" and a "fantasist", was sentenced to two life terms in 1984 for the murder of Ann Lee and Margaret "Peggy" Johnson, who were killed whilst they were out walking their dogs in 1982. His conviction was overturned in 2001.
  • Sally Clark was convicted in 1996 of the murder of her two small sons Christopher and Harry, and spent 3 years in jail, finally being released in 2003 on appeal. The convictions were based solely on the analysis of the deaths by the Home Office Pathologist Alan Williams, who failed to disclose relevant information about the deaths, and backed up by the paediatric professor Sir Roy Meadow, whose opinion was pivotal in several other child death convictions, many of which have been overturned or are in the process of being challenged. In 2005 Alan Williams was found guilty of serious professional misconduct and barred from practicing pathology for 3 years. In July 2005 Meadows was also struck off for serious professional misconduct and barred.
  • Donna Anthony, 25 at the time, was wrongly jailed in 1998 for the death of her 11 month old son, and finally released in 2005, also because of the opinion of Sir Roy Meadow.
  • The Gurnos Three, also known as the Merthyr Tydfil Arson Case
  • Annette Hewins, Donna Clarke and Denise Sullivan were wrongly convicted of the arson attack on the home of Diane Jones, aged 21, in October 1995. Someone had torn away part of the covering of her front door and poured in petrol to start the fire. The fire spread so rapidly that Ms Jones and her two daughters, Shauna, aged two and Sarah-Jane, aged 13 months, were all killed. The convictions of Ms Hewins and Ms Clarke were quashed at the Court of Appeal in February 1998 and a retrial ordered in the case of Ms Clarke.
  • Michelle and Lisa Taylor, wrongly convicted for the murder in 1991 of Alison Shaughnessy, a bank clerk who was the bride of Michelle's former lover. The trial was heavily influenced by inaccurate media reporting and deemed unfair.
  • Paul Blackburn was convicted in 1978 when aged 15 of the attempted murder of a 9-year old boy, and spent more then 25 years in 18 different prisons, during which time he maintained his innocence. He said he had never considered saying he was guilty to secure an earlier release because it was a matter of "integrity". He was finally released in May 2005 when the Court of Appeal ruled his trial was unfair and his conviction 'unsafe'.
  • The Cardiff Three, Michael O'Brien, Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood, were wrongly convicted for the murder of a newsagent, Phillip Saunders. On October 12 1987 Mr Saunders, 52, was battered with a spade outside his Cardiff home. The day's takings from his kiosk had been stolen, and five days later he died of his injuries. The three men spent 11 years in jail before the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction in 1999. The three have since been paid six fugure compensation, but South Wales Police had still not apologised or admitted liability for malicious prosecution or misfeasance.


Reflecting Scotland's own legal system, which differs from that of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission [1] (SCCRC) was established in April 1999. All cases accepted by the SCCRC are subjected to a robust and thoroughly impartial review before a decision on whether or not to refer to the High Court of Justiciary is taken.

  • Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi By December 2005, the SCCRC is expected to rule on whether there has been a miscarriage of justice in Megrahi's case (his appeal [2] against conviction for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing was rejected in March 2002) and whether to allow a fresh appeal to the High Court of Justiciary.


  • Sallins Train Robbery


  • Lindy Chamberlain was convicted for the murder of her 9 week-old daughter, Azaria, in 1982 after claiming that the baby had been taken off by a dingo. In 1988 her conviction was overturned and she was released from prison.


  • Robert Baltovich was convicted in 1992 of the murder of Elizabeth Bain; released in 2000 to prepare an appeal based on new evidence; although he has not been officially exonerated, the Crown has not pursued the case since his release; new evidence points to Paul Bernardo, an acquaintance of Ms Bain's, as her killer.
  • James Driskell, Canadian wrongfully convicted in 1991 of the murder of Perry Harder; his conviction was quashed and the charges stayed in 2005 due to DNA testing, but he has not been fully exonerated.
  • Donald Marshall, Canadian Mi'kmaq Aboriginal wrongfully convicted in 1971 of the murder of Sandy Seale; acquitted on appeal in 1983 after an additional witness to the murder came forward.
  • In 1969, David Milgaard, a 16-year old, was convicted and given a life sentence for the murder of 20-year old nursing aide Gail Miller. After 23 years of imprisonment, the Supreme Court of Canada allowed for the release of Milgaard. Five years later DNA testing proved his innocence.
  • Guy Paul Morin, Canadian wrongfully convicted in 1992 of the murder of Christine Jessop; he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1995.
  • Thomas Sophonow, Canadian wrongfully convicted in 1981 of the murder of Barbara Stoppel; acquitted on appeal in 1985, and conclusively exonerated by DNA evidence in 2000.

New Zealand

  • Arthur Allan Thomas, a New Zealand farmer, was twice convicted of the murders of Jeanette and Harvey Crewe on June 17, 1970. He spent 10 years in prison but a Royal Commission in 1980 showed the prosecution cases were flawed, and that police had deliberately planted bullets in a garden to use as evidence. Thomas was given a Royal Pardon, and was released and awarded $1 million compensation for wrongful convictions.
  • The case of David Bain, convicted of the murder of his family, is controversial.
  • The case of Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis, convicted of child sexual abuse, is controversial.

Province of Massachusetts Bay

  • Salem witch trials, malicious gossip gone awry resulted in the killing of many innocent people before the sentences were overturned (1692).

United States of America

  • Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists, trialled and sentenced to death for the killing of two people during a robbery in 1920. In 1977, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that Sacco and Vanzetti had not been treated justly and that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names."
  • Scottsboro Boys (1931)
  • Dr. Sam Sheppard, American convicted in 1954 of killing his wife in their home; Sheppard maintained she had been killed by an intruder, was found guilty, appealed his case to the Supreme Court, and was finally acquitted. A television series and film (both titled The Fugitive) are widely believed to have been loosely based on his story.
  • Robert Wilkinson, Pennsylvania – Philadelphia County, 1976: police beat him into signing a confession and intimidated witnesses. He was convicted of arson and murder; released later in year after being exonerated by new evidence – actual perpetrators confessed were convicted in federal court. Charges refiled in 1977; indictments dismissed three months later. A federal court ruled prosecutor David Berman ignored, withheld and/or destroyed exculpatory evidence. In dismissing Wilkinson's later indictment, the court ruled the prosecution was being maintained in bad faith. Prosecutors still insist he is guilty.
  • Randall Adams convicted of the 1976 murder of police officer Robert Wood in Texas largely due to testimony from David Ray Harris, who was later executed for a similar murder. Errol Morris's film, The Thin Blue Line explored his case and caused a closer examination, resulting in his release after 12 years in prison -- 4 of them on death row.
  • Gary Dotson, American who was the first person whose conviction (in 1979) was overturned because of DNA evidence, in 1989.
  • Darryl Hunt, convicted in 1984 of the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, spent 19 years in prison, 9 of which were served after DNA evidence indicated that he did not commit the rape. Since Hunt was an African-American, the case was heavily charged with the topic of race relations. An independent film, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" will premiere in 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival.
  • Ruben Cantu, American convicted in 1985 of murdering Pedro Gomez in Texas during a robbery. He was executed in 1993. Now it is widely believed that he was innocent.
  • There has been contention that the West Memphis 3 -- including Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin -- have been wrongly convicted of murdering three eight-year-old boys in 1993. There are accusations that police were negligent in collecting and handling evidence, as well as evidence that may point to the stepfather of one of the boys as the killer. Echols was sentenced to death, and Misskelly and Baldwin received life sentences. Their case is currently under appeal. Their ordeal has been chronicled in the documentaries Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelation.
  • Joshua Rivera, 36, was sentenced 37 years for a 1992 murder. On September 19, 1992, Leonard Aquino was in front of a building and was approached by a couple of men who spoke briefly, then opened fire. Mr. Aquino was killed; another man, Paul Peralta, was shot, but survived. Rivera was known to people in the building and had a conviction for gun possession. He was charged and convicted of the crime. In 2006 Jaime Acevedo confessed he drove the real killer to the murder scene, and that Rivera was not involved.[2]
  • Jeffrey R. MacDonald was an army doctor convicted of murdering his family. While the conviction remains, serious questions of prosecutorial impropriety of been raised in court regarding the original trial.
  • Many people believe that Scott Peterson was wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife Laci. This is because the police and prosecution automatically assumed that just because he cheated on his wife, his therefore guilty of murdering his wife[citation needed]. Numerous websites have been set up dedicated to his release.


  • Joan of Arc was executed in 1431 on charges of heresy. She was posthumously cleared in 1456.
  • Jean Calas from Toulouse was executed on 10 March 1762 for murder of his son Marc Antoine. The philosopher Voltaire, convinced of his innocence, succeeded in reopening of the case and rehabilitation of Jean in 1765.
  • Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly convicted for treason in 1894. After being imprisoned on Devil's Island he was proven innocent with the assistance of Emile Zola and definitively rehabilitated only in 1906. See the Dreyfus Affair.
  • In 2005, thirteen persons were finally proven innocent of child molestation after having served four years in prison. A fourteenth died in prison. Only two persons were proven guilty. This infamous case, which has deeply shaken the public opinion, is known as the "Affaire d'Outreau", the Outreau case, from the name of the city where these persons lived, in the north of France.


  • Cees Borsboom was released in December 2004 after serving four years in prison of a sentence of 18 years for a murder in June 2000 of a 10-year old girl which he had nothing to do with. He was released after Wik Haalmeijer confessed the murder. This confession was confirmed by DNA evidence on the victim and the description of the agent by another victim, Maikel, who survived the crime. Investigation of the way criminal justice acted in this case revealed that the police and the public prosecutor made large mistakes, ignored relevant information and brutalised the 11-year old victim Maikel. The minister of justice Piet Hein Donner had to take all responsibility. He survived in September 2005 a motion of non-confidence in parliament by a majority vote. The state of the Netherlands paid Cees Borsboom € 500.850,- compensation and the parents of Maikel an unknown amount.
  • Lucia de Berk is serving a life sentence for seven murders and three attempts. There is presently a strong movement in the Dutch media and among intellectuals, artists, members of the nursing profession, and many others, that her case be reopened.


  • Per Kristian Liland, wrongfully convicted of murdering two of his friends in 1969.
  • Fritz Moen was wrongfully convicted for two separate murders, in 1976 and 1977.

Soviet Union

  • See Category:Victims of Soviet repressions

Home Secretaries and miscarriage of justice

Several controversial Home Secretaries have been involved in entanglements with the Judiciary personally and professionally.

  • David Blunkett

See also

  • Capital punishment in the United Kingdom
  • List of reversed death sentences
  • Micarriage Of Justice Organisation (Mojo)
  • Innocence Project
  • False confession
  • Fingerprint

External links

  • Database of wrongful convictions worldwide


  1. ^ Criminal Cases Review Commission
  2. ^ New York Times; November 16, 2006; In Murder Case, New Evidence but Same Cell
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