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What are the primary causes of wrongful convictions in Idaho?

Common causes of wrongful convictions in Idaho include misconduct on the part of government officials, eyewitness errors and flawed forensic evidence.

When people in Idaho are charged with crimes, a high burden of proof is placed on the prosecution. An accused individual is innocent until proven guilty and must be found guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" to be convicted. Despite this high bar, wrongful convictions are not unheard of; according to Time magazine, one shocking study estimates that 4 percent of death row inmates are innocent. These convictions may occur for numerous reasons, from innocent errors to deliberate misconduct.

Issues with forensic evidence

Forensic evidence may be decisive in cases involving drug possession or sales, sexual offenses, violent crimes, and more. Unfortunately, according to the Innocence Project, erroneous forensic evidence is the second most common cause of known wrongful convictions that have been overturned based on more rigorous DNA evidence. Altogether, 46 percent of these wrongful convictions involved issues such as the following:

· The use of scientifically unvalidated forensic techniques

· Inadvertent errors, such as mix-ups or contamination of forensic samples

· Use of methods known to have accuracy issues

Here in Idaho, two-thirds of individuals who have been exonerated were initially convicted on the basis of faulty forensic evidence, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Flawed eyewitness testimony

The Innocence Project has identified errors on the part of eyewitness as a top cause of wrongful convictions. Nationally, such mistakes were a factor in over 70 percent of cases in which innocent people were eventually exonerated due to DNA evidence. In Idaho, eyewitness testimony has played a role in one out of three exonerated wrongful convictions.

One factor that can make eyewitness testimony so unreliable is the dynamic and fallible nature of human memory. Variables at the scene of an alleged crime, such as the lighting or the use of a weapon, may reduce an eyewitness's ability to accurately observe, process or recall the scene. Furthermore, the identification procedures that law enforcement authorities use have potential to influence an eyewitness's memories, leading him or her to mistakenly identify an innocent party.

Misconduct by officials

Official misconduct may take many forms, including overstating the reliability of evidence; using suggestive tactics when interviewing eyewitnesses; and withholding evidence that is favorable to the accused. The Innocence Project does not report any data on the rates of this misconduct. However, two-thirds of overturned wrongful convictions here in Idaho involved misconduct on the part of prosecutors, law enforcement authorities or other officials.

False confessions

To date, false confessions have not been identified as a factor in any wrongful convictions in Idaho. However, due to the credibility that a confession carries and the difficulty of mounting a defense once a false confession has been elicited, some uncaught wrongful convictions may involve this factor.

Many variables may give rise to false confessions, including intoxication or mental impairment; misunderstanding of the situation; fear of the consequences of withholding a confession; and manipulation or coercion. The Innocence Project has found that, in over one-quarter of DNA-based exonerations, innocent individuals confessed or took other actions to incriminate themselves. Research suggests that this outcome may be even more common among juveniles charged with crimes.

Crafting a defense

In light of the many potential causes of wrongful convictions, it is imperative for anyone facing criminal charges to consult with an attorney promptly. An attorney may be able to help a person build a compelling defense and ensure that any issues with the evidence against him or her are adequately considered.

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