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Is anyone ever held accountable for wrongful convictions?

Sadly, the criminal justice system in New York is far from perfect. In fact, we often hear of cases in which innocent individuals are convicted and sent to prison, only to be freed years later when it is learned that they were victims of wrongful convictions.

While some of these individuals are cleared of wrongdoing based on DNA evidence, others have their convictions overturned after it is discovered that faulty eyewitness identifications or false/fraudulent evidence was used to convict them --or worse, prosecutors withheld evidence or influenced witness testimony. In some cases, courts will free victims of wrongful convictions because police officers coerced a false confession or manipulated evidence.

However, regardless of the underlying reasons for a wrongful conviction, what many people find truly unbelievable is that government officials -- including prosecutors and police officers -- are rarely held accountable for the roles they play. Indeed, they are almost never prosecuted themselves when their unethical or outright illegal behavior results in a wrongful conviction.

For instance, of the 23 cases in the last three years in which the Conviction Review Unit (C.R.U.) in Brooklyn has asked a judge to free an individual wrongfully imprisoned, only a handful has resulted in someone being held accountable, according a recent New York Times report.

One reason that it has been so hard to assign blame for wrongful convictions is because the cases are often quite old, meaning many witnesses no longer remember the incidents very well, or the witnesses may even be dead. Given these challenges, it can be difficult to prove misconduct on the part of detectives or prosecutors.

Are there any legal options for victims?

Even if government officials are not held accountable for their part in wrongful convictions, victims may still have another legal option available. Specifically, they may be able to use Section 8-b of the New York Court of Claims Act to pursue financial compensation for the years they spent wrongfully behind bars.

However, obtaining compensation under this statute may be difficult, which is why it is always best to seek experienced legal guidance should you have any questions.

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