Wrongful Convictions – Unlocking the Truth

“Unlocking the Truth” is a show on MTV that is investigating the cases of three people who may have been wrongfully convicted.  The show is co-hosted by Ryan Ferguson, who was exonerated after serving 10 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.  This show, and others like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” shines a light on the inadequacies of our criminal justice system and I hope is helping to educate the public on how and why people are wrongfully convicted of crimes.

False Confessions

One of the factors common to many exoneration cases is a false confession.  When jurors hear that a defendant confessed to a crime, that’s the end of the story in most people’s minds.  Why would someone confess to a crime that they did not commit?  According to the Innocence Project, more than 1 in 4 people who were convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence confessed to the crime or made incriminating statements.  The bottom line is that when police make it appear that confessing is easier or will turn out better for the suspect than maintaining their innocence, many people will take the easy way out and say what the police want to hear.  According to the Innocence Project, factors that can lead to a false confession include:

  • duress,
  • coercion,
  • intoxication,
  • diminished capacity,
  • mental impairment,
  • ignorance of the law,
  • fear of violence,
  • the actual infliction of harm,
  • the threat of a harsh sentence, and
  • misunderstanding the situation.

Police are allowed to lie to suspects, including telling a suspect that they have conclusive evidence of guilt.  This is what happened to Ferguson’s co-defendant, who was initially convinced by the police that he had committed the crime although he had no recollection of it.  Police often lie to suspects to obtain a conviction, or mis-state the law, minimizing the legal effect of the suspect’s actions to convince them that things will go easier or perhaps they can go home if they just admit to what the police want them to say.  Underaged suspects, mentally ill suspects, and people under the influence of alcohol or drugs are more likely to give in to an interrogator’s pressure and agree to incriminating statements.


Another factor in many wrongful convictions is the testimony of the jailhouse snitch or snitches, who are offered years of their life in exchange for testimony against a defendant.  For example, in Ferguson’s case, after police obtained a confession from his co-defendant (who is likely also innocent), prosecutors offered him a deal in exchange for his testimony against Ferguson which was key in Ferguson’s conviction.

Prosecutors will offer to take the death penalty off the table, reduce charges, dismiss charges, decline to bring charges, or offer to take years off of a person’s prison sentence in exchange for testimony against a defendant.  In many detention centers, there is a black market in obtaining other inmates’ discovery materials – if you can learn the facts of a cellmate or other inmate’s case, you know enough to lie and you can use that information to cut a deal with an over-zealous prosecutor or detective.  The jailhouse snitch who testifies that the defendant confessed to them at the jail, or that they overheard the defendant confessing to someone else, is a regular staple in the more serious cases such as murders.  In most states, there is no check on the reliability of jailhouse snitch testimony and no corroboration is required before they are allowed to take the stand.

Failure of the System

When a person is wrongfully convicted, it is the result of failures at all levels of government.  Laws need to be implemented that will ensure the reliability of confessions – it should be mandatory that all interrogations are videotaped in their entirety.  Jailhouse snitches should never be permitted to testify without independent corroboration of their testimony.  The rules regarding admissibility of scientific evidence need to be overhauled to prohibit junk science whether it is from the defense or the prosecution.

A wrongful conviction is first a failure of the police and investigators – it is probably rare that a wrongful conviction begins with a competent and honest police officer.  More often it begins with sloppy police work and apathy on the part of a jaded and biased investigator.  It is also a failure of the prosecutors assigned to the case.  Murders are often high profile and this results in extreme pressure on police and prosecutors to solve the case and get a conviction whatever the cost.  When a prosecutor withholds exculpatory evidence – another factor common to many exoneration cases – they are abdicating their duty to seek justice in favor of seeking a conviction.  Prosecutors who put witnesses on the stand when they are not confident in the witness’ credibility have failed the system.  Prosecutors who do not dismiss a case when they know that there is not sufficient evidence to convict have failed the system.  Prosecutors who are so jaded that they don’t care if a person is wrongfully convicted should find another job – I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a prosecutor say “if they didn’t do it they did something else . . .”

Knowing that there are sloppy and/or unethical police and prosecutors and understanding the incredible pressures that police and prosecutors are under in high profile cases, the defense has an obligation to do an independent investigation and to challenge everything in the case.  Find out who the snitches are, what they are saying, and why they are lying.  Learn how to effectively impeach the snitches.  If there is a coerced confession, be prepared to challenge and explain it, with expert testimony if necessary.  Challenge the state’s experts when they are called on to testify about conclusions based on junk science.  Challenge the officer’s competence when appropriate, the prosecutor’s handling of the case, and make sure that that the jury sees the dark corners of the justice system and how they came into play in this person’s prosecution.

Shows like “Unlocking the Truth” are sorely needed – the way to fight wrongful convictions and the injustices that are currently built into the system is by educating the public.  If the public sees what is happening in courtrooms around the country, they will demand change.  When the public demands change, politicians will deliver it.


One Response to “Wrongful Convictions – Unlocking the Truth

  • José Covarrubias
    4 years ago

    To whom it may concern:

    This is a case of injustice and a gross miscarriage of justice of 16 years in the making.

    My brother Jorge Armando Covarrubias, CDCR T23089, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life under the terms of an unknowing and involuntary plea bargain.

    Jon A. Divens SB 145549, my brother’s trial counsel just admitted he used my brother’s inability to understand English to improperly advised him to enter into a plea bargain of 30 years to life, for a crime he did NOT commit.

    The Honorable Lillian Vega Jacobs, former District Attorney who prosecuted the case presented an affidavit stating that she observed my brother hesitant and reluctant to enter into a plea of guilty, and that she did not believe that Jorge would accept such plea, because that is not a plea at all.

    We have tried unsuccessfuly for 16 years to prove the truth and we don’t know what else to do. All our atempts to show the truth have been denied, due time limitations.

    My brother attests that the court intérpreter Cecilia Alcaraz never explained to him the truth in Spanish about court proceedings nor about such plea bargain. He was unable to understand because at that time he was complete iliterate un writing and speaking english.

    At this time we are trying to obtain a declaration from the Court intérpreter, but we have no concrete answer from her. She is afraid of something.

    In the last conversation I had with her, she informed me that the Los Angeles’ County District Attorney Office told her to avoid problems, “Keep her mouth shut,” and not to answer my emails or phone calls. However, we continúe with our figth to show the honest truth. The truth that my brother’s language inability was used against him, and his due process rights was violated. A right well protected by the California and US constitutions.

    Jorge told me that all he wants is to show the truth, that he is innocent of the charges, that he did not sign nor agree to accept such plea bargain, and to be deported to México.

    we are requesting your help to find justice for my brother. We have proof, tangible evidence to show the truth.

    My brother’s case:

    People of California vs Jorge Armando Covarrubias. Superior Court of California VA061911.

    Thank you for your time.

    José Covarrubias

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