What is a Miscarriage of Justice?

Ron Marr
Ron Marr
A miscarriage of justice is said to occur when an individual is incarcerated or punished due to an error in the judicial system.
A miscarriage of justice is said to occur when an individual is incarcerated or punished due to an error in the judicial system.

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.

DNA has been used to prove a convicted person is innocent.
DNA has been used to prove a convicted person is innocent.

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.

A judge can be accused of a miscarriage of justice for dealing a harsher sentence than normal for a particular crime.
A judge can be accused of a miscarriage of justice for dealing a harsher sentence than normal for a particular crime.

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.

Setting a guilty person free despite overwhelming evidence is an example of a miscarriage of justice.
Setting a guilty person free despite overwhelming evidence is an example of a miscarriage of justice.

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.

Some say intimidating means of interrogation produce false statements and confessions.
Some say intimidating means of interrogation produce false statements and confessions.

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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    • A miscarriage of justice is said to occur when an individual is incarcerated or punished due to an error in the judicial system.
      By: kanvag
      A miscarriage of justice is said to occur when an individual is incarcerated or punished due to an error in the judicial system.
    • DNA has been used to prove a convicted person is innocent.
      By: xtock
      DNA has been used to prove a convicted person is innocent.
    • A judge can be accused of a miscarriage of justice for dealing a harsher sentence than normal for a particular crime.
      By: Monika Wisniewska
      A judge can be accused of a miscarriage of justice for dealing a harsher sentence than normal for a particular crime.
    • Setting a guilty person free despite overwhelming evidence is an example of a miscarriage of justice.
      By: kolotype
      Setting a guilty person free despite overwhelming evidence is an example of a miscarriage of justice.
    • Some say intimidating means of interrogation produce false statements and confessions.
      By: Steven Pepple
      Some say intimidating means of interrogation produce false statements and confessions.