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When Being Innocent isn’t Enough

Scalia’s Embarrassing Question

A wrongful conviction stems from a fundamental breakdown in the legal process—what the uninitiated like to call a “technical error.” Prosecutors buried crucial evidence, witnesses lied, police coerced false confessions, defense attorneys performed so poorly that they basically failed to advocate at all. These “technical” breakdowns matter because they violate the Constitution, which guarantees all criminal defendants the right to be free from police and prosecutorial abuses, to have access to favorable evidence in the state’s possession, and to have a defense attorney who will fight for their cause.

If you are a wrongfully convicted man or woman in this country, it is extremely difficult—if not outright impossible—to win your case by advancing the simple argument that you are innocent. Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. The Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to hold that the federal Constitution allows for so-called freestanding claims of innocence, that is, the right to be let out of prison simply because you didn’t do it, without any other “technical” violation to back up your argument. In the United States, the inmate who raises a compelling case of innocence after a constitutionally proper trial may well be doomed.

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