What are Overturned Convictions?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 February 2020
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Overturned convictions are convictions in criminal cases which are later set aside, reopening the cases under discussion and exonerating the person who was originally convicted. Worldwide, wrongful convictions are a problem in many penal systems and it is difficult to obtain accurate estimates of the number of people who have been wrongfully convicted. This is in part because not everyone can afford the appeals process and as a result some people who have been convicted in error have never had an opportunity to challenge the conviction.

A conviction can be overturned for a variety of reasons including problems with the trial, new evidence, and misconduct. One of the leading causes of overturned convictions, for example, is eyewitness misidentification. Other causes can include false confessions, plea bargains, bad forensic methods, DNA testing which exonerates someone, and the emergence of new evidence. Procedural errors such as misconduct, jury tainting, and improper jury instructions from the judge can also result in overturned convictions.


In order to overturn a conviction, someone needs to file an appeal to challenge a case. The appeal can be structured in a variety of ways, depending on the specifics of the situation. A lawyer who specializes in preparing appeals is critical for this process, as he or she can find the angle of approach which will be most likely to result in overturning the conviction. Once a conviction has been overturned, the person who was wrongfully convicted can be set free and his or her record can be cleared. If the person has already served time or has been executed, the exoneration will occur after the fact.

The frequency of overturned convictions varies considerably both by country and type of crime. Advocates for penal reform argue that it is extremely common to see convictions overturned, pointing to the need for changes in the way in which the justice system is administered. This is also used as an argument to abolish the death penalty, out of fears that people who are actually innocent may be executed as a result of wrongful convictions.

In the process of preparing arguments to attempt to overturn a conviction, it is important to gather as much supporting documentation and other material as possible. This includes being honest and open with the legal team so that they have all of the information pertaining to the case so that they can build an effective argument for an appeal. Overturned convictions can hinge on seemingly unimportant information and it is better to have too much information than too little.


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Post 4

@indemnifyme - I don't think overturned convictions happen enough for us to abolish the death penalty. I can't remember the last time that I read a headline in the paper that said anything like "Court Overturns Conviction" regarding a murder case (or any other case.)

I think forensic science is advanced enough now to prove a murder case beyond the shadow of a doubt. After all, DNA evidence is used in most murder cases, and that's not something you can fake!

Post 3
I definitely think that overturned federal convictions are a good argument for abolishing the death penalty. Yes, some murderers probably do deserve to be put to death. However, I think the chances of an innocent person being put to death are too high for us to continue the death penalty.

I might feel differently if forensic science was advanced enough to prove a conviction with one hundred percent certainty. But we're definitely not at that point now.

Post 2

@eidetic - It is disturbing, but at least some people are getting justice. I find it more disturbing when people are denied appeals and don't even get the chance to lobby for DNA exonerations. I feel like the fact that some convictions do get overturned is evidence that our justice system works.

Post 1

I've read a few articles in the newspaper about wrongful conviction cases over the last few years, and I find it disturbing the amount of people who might be in jail for crimes they didn't commit.

As the articles said, some convictions have been overturned now that we have DNA testing available. So I have to wonder what new advances we're going to make in forensic science in the next twenty years that will affect the convictions that are being made now?

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