Elephants in the Courtroom:
Examining Overlooked Issues in Wrongful Convictions

October 15-16, 2015
Arlington, VA

Project Directors:
Allison D. Redlich
James R. Acker
Catherine L. Bonventre
Robert J. Norris


This event made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Justice.

It is well established that innocent persons sometimes are arrested and convicted for crimes they did not commit. It is also well established that in many of these wrongful conviction cases, the actual perpetrator went on to commit other crimes, including murders and rapes--crimes which may have been prevented if the wrong person had not been identified and the right person had been prosecuted. Although the exact definition of wrongful conviction and exoneration varies between sources, most scholars agree that the wrongful convictions that have been identified are the mere tip of a much larger iceberg, and likely represent a considerably larger body of cases involving the conviction of innocent persons. If this premise is correct, several limitations necessarily exist concerning our knowledge of the incidence of wrongful convictions, the factors that contribute to miscarriages of justice, and their consequences.

The overarching goal of the workshop is to advance wrongful conviction scholarship by enlisting theoretical perspectives and focusing on issues important to the administration of justice which have not garnered commensurate research attention. The workshop will bring together diverse scholars to discuss important topics that have largely been overlooked or ignored. These "elephants in the courtroom" in the study of wrongful convictions include: 1) the intersection of race and miscarriages of justice; 2) how and why guilty pleas, which account for the vast majority of convictions, contribute to miscarriages of justice; 3) wrongful convictions for misdemeanors, which account for roughly 80% of criminal charges; and 4) data needs and methodological constraints important to the scientific study of wrongful convictions and the effective dissemination of research findings for use by policymakers and practitioners.

The specific objectives are: (1) To examine wrongful conviction issues that loom large but have not yet received sufficient attention by wrongful conviction scholars and policymakers; (2) To bring together scholars and professionals from varying disciplines (e.g., law, criminal justice, sociology, psychology, political science) to enhance understanding of wrongful convictions and to communicate new theories to test and methods to employ; and (3) To foster the translation of science into practice and policy by generating new programs of research into unexplored issues of wrongful conviction that could ultimately provide insight into the effectiveness and integrity of the criminal justice system.

Over the course of two days, participants will be presented with broad-based theories and findings that have gained much traction in furthering the understanding of criminal justice system actors and institutions but have not customarily been applied to wrongful convictions specifically. Moreover, while the four main sessions focus on issues that have received relatively little attention, they have great potential to influence widely held beliefs about wrongful convictions, thereby fostering new avenues of study and possibly larger theories to test. Finally, the workshop has the potential for broad impact through the achievement of desired societal outcomes (e.g., a reduction in wrongful convictions and correction of the corresponding problems caused when the truly guilty perpetrators remaining at large), fostering interdisciplinary collaborations, and the dissemination of resulting work products to academic and non-academic audiences. As social science research evidence is becoming more commonly accepted by policymakers, the potential to influence judicial decision-making, legislation, and justice administration is real.