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What is a Miscarriage of Justice?

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  • Written By: Ron Marr
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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A miscarriage of justice can be defined in several different ways. Most commonly, it refers to the conviction of a person, in a court of law, for a crime of which he or she is later proven innocent. A miscarriage of justice can also apply in the reverse manner, that of a guilty person being set free when there is overwhelming evidence, or later proof, that he or she was actually guilty of the crime of which they were accused. The phrase is not solely restricted to crimes against persons or property, for it can also apply to civil cases where punishment consists largely of financial compensation. In short, a miscarriage of justice is any situation where an individual is somehow incarcerated, executed, or punished due to the error of the legal system.

Miscarriages of justice are frighteningly common. Since the 1990s — when the science of identifying DNA evidence was perfected to an acceptable degree of reliability — many convicted murderers and rapists have been declared innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. The use of DNA evidence has become a major argument for those who oppose the death penalty. In many cases, blood or fluid evidence which originally led to a proclamation of guilt — prior to the creation of DNA science — can now be used to prove an individual’s innocence.

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Miscarriages of justice can come about for reasons other than tainted evidence or judicial mistakes. Under some scenarios, police have coerced confessions from innocent parties, or withheld critical evidence from defense attorneys. Miscarriages of justice have also taken place due to bias — preconceived opinions of guilt — due to race, color, lifestyle, or even appearance. In totalitarian countries, numerous individuals have been convicted in show trials, with confessions of guilt arising via the use of torture. In this latter instance, the “conviction” is frequently used as a tool to imprison or kill political dissidents.

Those who are the victims of a miscarriage of justice may serve decades in prison or even be executed. Some countries, most notably the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain, provide compensation to those who have been improperly incarcerated. Such payments, pardons, or acquittals are of small solace to those who have spent many years behind bars, and are of even less value to those who are acquitted posthumously. The United States pays compensation to the wrongly convicted on a case-by-case basis. Overturning a wrongful conviction is extremely difficult, as courts and judges usually display a marked tendency to avoid the impression that a judicial system is imperfect.

Famous examples of miscarriages of justice include Joan of Arc, who was accused of heresy in 1431 and posthumously acquitted in 1456. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920. In America, in 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was accused and convicted of killing his wife. Sheppard served ten years in prison before the United States Supreme Court permitted the new trial that led to his acquittal. His case went on to become the inspiration for the long-running TV series, and feature film, known as The Fugitive.

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