It’s no secret today that many individuals are convicted of sex crimes they did not commit. Unfortunately, unlike with other crimes those found guilty of rape, child pornography, sexual assault, and other offenses don’t only face punishment in the form of jail or prison time, probation, etc. They also face undeserved special attention in the form of being labeled a sex offender. This is extreme punishment when an innocent person has been found guilty of a sex crime, as sex offender status not only destroys a person’s reputation, it also impacts employment and housing opportunities, and much more. With sex crimes, those who are wrongfully convicted certainly face punishment that does not “fit the crime.”
How does this even happen? How can someone who is completely innocent of the crime he or she is accused of be found guilty? While it can happen with any type of crime, it is particularly easy for someone who’s innocent to be convicted of a sex crime. If you’re reading this article, be aware it could even happen to you, although it seems impossible – others who are locked behind bars today probably thought the same exact thing.
In every state including Michigan, the penalties for those convicted of a sex crime are extremely harsh. The unfortunate truth is that about a quarter of reported sexual attacks are false. Even with a lack of physical evidence, many prosecutors secure convictions because of juries who may feel sympathetic toward the “alleged” victim. Considering the details of these reported “crimes” are often horrific in nature, it sometimes isn’t difficult for a judge or jury to be convinced the victim is telling the truth – even if the story is fabricated.
Over a 23-year period (from 1989 to 2012), the data reported on The National Registry of Exonerations revealed that for that time period, there were 305 wrongful sex offender convictions. However, it’s important to note this data represents a small fraction of the number of people who are actually convicted of sex crimes they did not commit.
What is the number one reason innocent individuals are found guilty of sex crimes? Mistaken eye witness identification. The data indicates that among those convicted of sexual assault who were exonerated, 80% were mistakenly identified. In the case of child sex abuse, 74% were exonerated because of perjury or false accusation. This can happen when a child or minor “fabricates” a story that is not true; in many instances, a parent may convince a child to make up or go along with a story of sexual abuse when seeking revenge for some reason on an ex-spouse.
Plea bargains are often accepted by alleged perpetrators of a sex crime in an effort to avoid serious punishment or a lengthy prison term. Sometimes a person accused of sexual assault or rape (an innocent individual) is simply afraid to face trial, knowing that he or she may be found guilty even though innocent of committing the crime. The thought of facing the consequences (decades in prison, in some cases life in prison depending on the state) can be too much to bear. In the defendant’s mind, it’s easier to plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a lighter punishment than to imagine the alternative. Unfortunately, the fact that someone accepts a plea bargain in order to avoid a possible conviction and the harsh consequences does not mean that individual will escape the requirement to register as a sex offender, which in itself is extreme punishment.
Imagine being identified by an alleged victim as a rapist. It is a case of mistaken identity, the victim points straight to you in the courtroom, witnessed by the jury. Although you didn’t do it, you’re convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. After a few years roll by you’ll resort to almost anything to get out of the hell hole you’re in – including expressing remorse to the family or even admitting guilt. When you’re finally let out of the cage, you’ll be on the sex offender registry and labeled a sex offender for the remainder of your life. Can you even imagine facing this nightmare?
Probably not – unfortunately, many people are living the nightmare as this is being written. It’s fairly easy to see how good, upstanding people who are completely innocent get convicted of sex crimes; it is also very concerning and sad for those of us who fight on behalf of innocent clients.