Studying Wrongful Convictions: Learning from Social Science
25 Pages Posted: 6 Jan 2010 Last revised: 27 Apr 2010
Date Written: 2009
There has been an explosion of legal scholarship on wrongful convictions in the last decade, reflecting a growing concern about the problem of actual innocence in the criminal justice system. Yet criminal law and procedure scholars have engaged in relatively little dialogue or collaboration on this topic with criminologists. In this article, we use the empirical study of wrongful convictions to illustrate what criminological approaches – or, more broadly, social science methods – can teach legal scholars. After briefly examining the history of wrongful conviction scholarship, we discuss the limits of the (primarily) narrative methodology of legal scholarship on wrongful convictions. We argue that social scientific methods allow for more precise and accurate depictions of the multifactorial and complex nature of causation in wrongful conviction cases. In the main body of this article, we discuss and illustrate several social science approaches to the study of wrongful conviction: aggregated case studies, matched comparison samples, and path analysis. We argue these methods would help criminal law and procedure scholars to better understand the causes, characteristics, and consequences of wrongful convictions than a purely narrative approach. Finally, we offer concluding thoughts about improving the dialogue between criminal law and criminology on the subject of wrongful conviction.
Keywords: criminal law, criminology, wrongful convictions, empirical research, social science methodology
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