On December 17, 2014, George Stinney, convicted of first-degree murder, was granted a clear name with the reopening of his case. Upon investigating the circumstances of Stinney’s conviction, Judge Carmen T. Mullen found that his attorney and the prosecution did little to protect his constitutional rights during the short course of the trial. However, the ruling was 70 years too late, as Stinney was executed in 1944.
Unfortunately, wrongful convictions have become common, due to flaws and mistakes within the judicial system. In fact, an investigation by the National Registry of Exonerations has recently proven there are far more false convictions than exonerations in the United States.
Fortunately, as in the case of George Stinney, convictions can be vacated. With the reopening of a case, a judge may choose to exonerate the convicted, clearing them of their blame. When a conviction is vacated, the verdict is set aside, and it will appear as if the judgment never occurred.
Good legal representation is critical in fighting a wrongful conviction. With a capable criminal defense attorney on your side, you may be able to identify any mistreatments in your case, and have them reviewed by a judge.
The Detriments of a Wrongful Conviction
Wrongful convictions have a high cost. An innocent person is incarcerated, forced to serve time while the true perpetrator roams free. The conviction may result in damaged reputation, future legal troubles, or undeserved fees. In more extreme cases involving the death penalty, a wrongful conviction can cost an innocent person their life.
George Stinney was a 14-year old African American boy, living in a small, segregated town in the South. Stinney was accused of murdering two white girls, after police claimed he confessed to the crime, which his family believed was due to coercion. With an all-white jury, no witnesses or evidence presented in Stinney’s defense, and a mere two-hour trial, it is clear that his rights to a fair trial were compromised. Yet Stinney became the youngest person subject to the death penalty in the United States.
Reasons for a Wrongful Conviction
There are many missteps that may occur in the judicial process that qualify as grounds to vacate a conviction. Some reasons for wrongful conviction include eyewitness misidentification of the suspect, improper forensic science, false or coerced confessions, and false informants. Even more common, however, are issues directly linked to the legal process, such as breach of plea agreement, court bias, or juror misconduct.
One of the most prevalent causes of unfair trial, and a large proponent in the Stinney case, is ineffective assistance of counsel. Sometimes, the representation of a defendant is flawed at the fault of the attorney, thus compromising the trial. This may include, but is not limited to, a conflict of interest on the part of the attorney, government interference with the attorney-client relationship, or a general failure on the attorney’s part to provide adept representation. Therefore, in many cases, a wrongful conviction can be avoided from the start, with strong legal representation.
Vacating a Conviction
If you feel you were unjustly convicted, you will need an experienced criminal defense lawyer to review your case and identify the grounds on which you may qualify for a reopening of the case. Such grounds include the previously stated reasons for wrongful conviction, but qualification will vary on a case-by-case basis.
Next, your lawyer is critical in setting forth the process of making a motion to vacate the conviction. A strong defense attorney will be well versed in the state laws for the process. Finding good legal representation is the first step towards understanding your potential options, petitioning for a vacated conviction, and achieving a fair trial.