Miscarriages of justice, also called wrongful convictions and errors of justice (Forst, 2004), have long been a subject of popular interest. Traditional ballads and stories recounted the plight of the poor man facing execution for poaching to feed his family (“Geordie,” Child Ballad #209), the wife or sister who attempts to gain his release by surrendering her virtue to the cruel judge (“In his golden bed at midnight/There she heard the gallows groaning …”), and the outlaws, rebel leaders, and condemned men who told their stories from the scaffold (“Roddy McCorley”). These traditional stories focus on the contrast between good and evil, the implacability of the judge, and the imminence of death, while the theme of injustice is hinted at but never spoken. It is only in the final third of the 20th century that it becomes possible to speak of wrongful conviction as a topic of academic study and to explore it scientifically, trying to determine how often it occurs, and whether it is the result of human error.
This article first provides a brief history of wrongful convictions, beginning with the Salem witch trials, and then turns to the discovery and crisis of forensic evidence in the 20th century. By the end of the 20th century, forensic evidence techniques, from fingerprint identification to hair analysis, to interrogation techniques, had been called into question by the DNA revolution and the Supreme Court’s holding that expert witnesses in federal courts must be able to show the scientific basis for their testimony. Then we will turn to the psychological research that suggests that our current investigative techniques can provide false or misleading results. Causation can be divided into proximate and ultimate causation, and in the latter category, we will describe a social psychological theory which seeks to understand why, for example, it is so often the poor man (or, in the United States, the man of color) who faces execution for a crime he did not commit. Throughout, we will note the role of popular entertainment and news media in establishing a social understanding of wrongful convictions and assumptions as to its causes. We will close with considering three recent true crime documentaries whose success predicts similar efforts down the road.