In the May 31, 2024 edition of The Wrongful Conviction Law Review (Vol. 5, No. 1), two distinguished experts in psychology, Matthew Barry Johnson and Janquel D. Acevedo, published an article titled, Sex Assaults,’ False Guilty Pleas, Stranger Rape With Misidentification, and Drug Offenses. Johnson is with the Department of Psychology at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Acevedo is with the School of Psychology at Brisbane, Australia’s University of Queensland.


The duo sought to draw correlations or distinctions between wrongful convictions and exonerations. Both are separate phenomena. An exoneration is an “actual innocence” finding made by a court of law generally based on DNA evidence excluding the convicted individual or implicating the offender. A wrongful conviction is a finding made by a court of law that a conviction must be reversed generally based on either prosecutorial or police misconduct (suppression of favorable or exculpatory evidence, use of perjured testimony), false or misleading forensic evidence, inadequate assistance of counsel, or eyewitness misidentification.


In other words, a wrongful conviction reversal by a court of law is not a finding of actual innocence. In these cases, the court is saying that “but for” the official misconduct or the flawed evidence used to convict, there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different verdict.  


The National Registry of Exonerations reports that 3,497 exonerations have occurred in the U.S. since 1989. Illinois ranks first with the most exonerations (540), followed by Texas with 474.


Drawing on data from the New York-based Innocence Project (IP), Johnson/Acevedo found that 72 percent of the IP’s exonerations involved sex offenses. Texas leads the nation in sex offense exonerations, with those cases representing 26 percent of the state’s exonerations (or 103 of the 396 cases examined by Johnson and Acevedo}.


The duo offers these primary reasons for the sex offense exonerations:


  • Misidentification
  • Perjury/false allegations
  • False confessions
  • False/misleading forensic evidence
  • Inadequate defense counsel


Nearly half of Texas’ exonerations involve drug offenses—and most of these were the product of dirty cops who manufactured false evidence cases or corrupt crime labs generating false positives to secure convictions. Some of these convictions were accomplished with prosecutors’ knowledge or tacit approval.


According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Texas has executed at least ten innocent people—nine of whom were put to death by Republican governors. These are the worst examples of innocent people being found guilty and paying the ultimate price for the travesty. But there are other cases that, in their own right, are just as egregious and inflict lifelong consequences on the innocent person. Johnson and Acevedo use the case of Tony Hall to illustrate this point:


“Twenty-five-year-old, white male, Tony Hall was charged with fondling a 7-year-old child whom he was baby-sitting in 1992. Hall denied the charges, passed a polygraph exam, rejected a plea offer, and proceeded to a bench trial. Hall was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 15 years in prison. While imprisoned, he endured physical and sexual assaults. Hall was routinely denied parole because he refused to admit guilt. Hall served his entire sentence, was released in 2008, and was required to register as a sexual offender. Two years after his release, Hall had an encounter with this accuser, who was a young adult. The accuser reported a vague memory of the trial and no awareness that Hall had been imprisoned. The accuser reported a clear memory his mother had insisted he accuse Hall and physically beat him to comply. The accuser provided an affidavit. With the assistance of counsel, Hall obtained testimony from the accuser’s aunt (the mother’s sister) that she observed the mother physically beat the child to force him to make the allegations against Hall (who was a distant relative). Though the mother denied this, the State District Judge set aside the conviction, and it was affirmed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.”


Johnson and Acevedo found three reasons, and there are many more, why innocent people like Tony Hall are wrongly convicted and sent to prison:


  1. The complainant makes a false allegation, not realizing the consequences, and the allegation is pursued through the investigation and prosecution stages by a third party (like a mother) to get a conviction;
  2. The complainant does not like a person (most likely a relative) and deliberately fabricates an allegation; and
  3. The complainant becomes a pawn of adults who persuade or coerce the complainant to make a false allegation.


The problem inherent in all three scenarios is that once the false child sexual assault complaint, regardless of the motive, finds its way into a law enforcement investigation, that process becomes committed to building a case of guilt (most often by any means necessary), not discovering the truth.


It is estimated that as many as 250,000 innocent people are confined in the nation’s prison system. There is no way to accurately measure the number any more than measuring how many innocent people have been put to death in this country.


What we do know is this: as the famed English jurist William Blackstone once said, “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent person suffer.”