Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
About the Author
Cat Cojocaru is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and also holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Missouri. She is a J.D. candidate at the University of Missouri School of Law for May 2019. Cat currently serves as vice president of MU Law's Lambda Legal Society, program coordinator for the American Constitution Society at Mizzou Law, and is a member of the Criminal Law Association executive board.
After law school, Cat hopes to work in criminal prosecution.
This guide has been created by in support of Professor Diamond's Advanced Legal Research class for Fall 2017. The contents of this guide should not be taken as legal advice or as the work product of Mizzou Law librarians.
This guide provides an overview of the reasons wrongful convictions occur in the United States and of the communities impacted by wrongful convictions. This guide also provides resources and information about best practices law enforcement officers and prosecutors can use to decrease or eliminate wrongful convictions in their jurisdictions.
The goals of this guide are twofold - first, to educate law students about the prevalence of wrongful convictions in American society, and aid them in debunking the common myths that surround the criminal justice system. The secondary goal is to offer solutions to attorneys already practicing in the field of criminal justice, so they can identify problems in their own offices and effectively enforce the law while promoting justice and equity in their day-to-day work.
This guide also highlights the recent public interest in true crime via podcasts, television shows, and other multimedia, and advocates for raising awareness about the injustices of the criminal system among all U.S. citizens.
Wrongful convictions occur in the United States for a variety of reasons, so it is most helpful to start researching with tools that will give researchers a good overview of the various factors that contribute to these convictions. I would suggest startingThe Innocent Man, or Picking Cotton, to give researchers a firsthand account of cases that resulted in a wrongful conviction. After getting a narrativized view of wrongful convictions, then I would recommend researchers consult Professor Rodney Uphoff's journal article, "Convicting the Innocent," which gives a much more in-depth view of why innocent people get convicted. Then, I would suggest that researchers look for more current articles on the subject, like Jed Rakoff's "Why Innocent People Plead Guilty."
As the study of wrongful convictions is much more policy-based and relies on data, traditional research methods like using WestLaw would not prove very fruitful. I would recommend starting with an overview of the subject with materials like suggested above, and then diving deeper with secondary materials that parse out the mechanisms behind different kinds of wrongful convictions, as are suggested in the next tab.
The Innocent Man by
Publication Date: 2006-10-10
From MU Libraries:
"John Grisham's first work of nonfiction, an exploration of small town justice gone terribly awry, is his most extraordinary legal thriller yet. In the major league draft of 1971, the first player chosen from the State of Oklahoma was Ron Williamson. When he signed with the Oakland A's, he said goodbye to his hometown of Ada and left to pursue his dreams of big league glory. Six years later he was back, his dreams broken by a bad arm and bad habits--drinking, drugs, and women. He began to show signs of mental illness. Unable to keep a job, he moved in with his mother and slept twenty hours a day on her sofa. In 1982, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress in Ada named Debra Sue Carter was raped and murdered, and for five years the police could not solve the crime. For reasons that were never clear, they suspected Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz. The two were finally arrested in 1987 and charged with capital murder. With no physical evidence, the prosecution's case was built on junk science and the testimony of jailhouse snitches and convicts. Dennis Fritz was found guilty and given a life sentence. Ron Williamson was sent to death row. If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you."
Picking Cotton by
Publication Date: 2009-03-03
From MU Libraries:
"The New York Times best selling true story of an unlikely friendship forged between a woman and the man she incorrectly identified as her rapist and sent to prison for 11 years. Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she slept. She was able to escape, and eventually positively identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald insisted that she was mistaken-- but Jennifer's positive identification was the compelling evidence that put him behind bars. After eleven years, Ronald was allowed to take a DNA test that proved his innocence. He was released, after serving more than a decade in prison for a crime he never committed. Two years later, Jennifer and Ronald met face to face-- and forged an unlikely friendship that changed both of their lives. WithPicking Cotton, Jennifer and Ronald tell in their own words the harrowing details of their tragedy, and challenge our ideas of memory and judgment while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness."
Convicting the Innocent: Aberration or Systemic Problem?
Rodney Uphoff, Convicting the Innocent: Aberration or Systemic Problem?, 2006 Wis. L. Rev. 739 (2006)
"In practice, the right to adequate defense counsel in the United States is disturbingly unequal. Only some American criminal defendants actually receive the effective assistance of counsel. Although some indigent defendants are afforded zealous, effective representation, many indigent defendants and almost all of the working poor are not. The quality of representation a defendant receives generally is a product of fortuity, of economic status, and of the jurisdiction in which he or she is charged. For many defendants, the assistance of counsel means little more than counsel's help in facilitating a guilty plea. With luck, money, and location primarily determining whether a defendant has meaningful access to justice in this country, the promise of equal justice remains illusory.Providing defendants access to competent counsel with the time and resources to meaningfully test the prosecution's case is a badly needed step that would enhance the fairness and reliability of our criminal justice system. It is, however, just one step in fixing a "broken system." For even the presence of a capable defense lawyer does not necessarily ensure that the innocent will, in fact, go free. Contrary to popular wisdom, our system of justice does not overprotect criminal defendants, thereby minimizing the conviction of the innocent. Rather, our state criminal justice systems, as they currently operate, inadequately protect those wrongfully accused of crimes."
Why Innocent People Plead Guilty
This article gives a good overview of how the criminal justice system became so unfair to defendants, how prosecutors choose to wield their power, and other institutional factors that have lead to higher conviction rates in the U.S. in recent decades.