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Unlawful or Unfair Convictions and Solutions

One of the central and most important problem of criminal proceedings are the problem of a lawful, justified, and fair sentence as the final act of justice in a criminal case. The requirements of legality and validity are advanced to any decision in the course of criminal proceedings; however, the requirement of justice is directly enshrined in the criminal procedure legislation exclusively in relation to the court verdict. Each specific process in a criminal case is a kind of test of how accurately international human rights standards are respected in a fair trial, and how fully the state respects human rights in it. In addition, one should agree with the assertion of Huff and Killias that criminal proceedings are the only possible means of restoring social justice (35). Therefore, justice is the main goal of all criminal procedure activities, the means of which is the law.

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The point of view of Ross et al. on the “triad” of requirements laid down in the final court decision – legality, validity, and justice – is of interest. In this context, in the opinion of the indicated author, the validity is synonymous with the word “evidence”: the basis of the criminal procedure decision must be proved. Justification is the result of proof and the condition for the fairness of decisions in criminal proceedings. “Proven means fair ”(Ross et al. 21-22). Thus, justice can only be shown if the results of criminal proceedings are maximally convincing, including through possible verification (Huff and Killias 16-17). Only acts of grounded knowledge can and should be accompanied by an experience of subjective conviction of the reliability of the achieved result of cognition, therefore, for making any decisions in a criminal case, the key category should bebe preciselysoundness” (Huff and Killias 19). Only under the condition when during the judicial investigation all possible versions are thoroughly, comprehensively, and objectively investigated, the revealed contradictions are checked, evaluated, and eliminated, and, as a result, the court has a sufficient set of consistent reliable evidence confirming the defendant’s guilt, sentence can be made.

In the study of justice in the material sense ann the analysis of justice in the formal sense, it becomes obvious that various sources relate to justice mainly in relation to the judicial stages, primarily to the stage of the trial – the main stage of the criminal process, the climax of which is the decision of the sentence. Justice is also referred to as property, quality of sentence (Huff and Killias 52). Narrowly formulated by the legislator, such a property of a sentence as justice limited by the justice of punishment is only a particular manifestation of the principle of justice – the truth in punishment, that is, the appointment of such punishment by the court, which, firstly, will fully correspond to the main purpose of the punishment, correction; secondly, that is why it will be fair in a subjective sense (Ross et al. 14). Contrary to a formally defined norm on the justice of a sentence, doctrine and practice expand such a literal understanding by applying material justice (truth must be established).

In 2013, an FBI inspection of the US judicial and investigative authorities became a cause for serious concern. The FBI began a federal audit of criminal cases after a critical article was published by the Washington Post on the methods of work of investigative laboratories. In particular, it was about a harmful practice to build an indictment only based on an analysis of the hair found at the crime scene (Medwed 36-39). Back in the 1970s, this method was recognized by American lawyers as obsolete and inferior; however, it is still applied.

FBI experts studied about 22 thousand particularly serious criminal cases related to long and life sentences, as well as those for which death sentences were imposed. The first examinations showed that in relation to 27 people a fatal mistake was made. The FBI does not hide the fact that between 1979 and 2009, 500 defendants were sentenced based on dubious hair tests (Medwed 248-252). There is a known case when a person was sentenced to life imprisonment for rape, which he did not commit, by the hair found at the crime scene. During 18 years spent in prison, he unsuccessfully tried to prove his innocence in this crime, and only when DNA analysis began to be used in judicial practice, the innocent finally was released (Medwed 140-142). America was also shocked by the posthumous story of the 26-year-old Texas resident Ruben Kant, executed in August 1993 being accused of armed robbery and murder. Only in 2005 did it become clear that an innocent person was executed.

Scandals involving an unfairly imposed but nonetheless executed death sentence have erupted in the United States before. One of the textbook examples cited by almost all opponents of the death penalty in the United States was the sentence imposed and executed in South Carolina in 1915 against the Griffin brothers (Medwed 294). This story has recently been increasingly recalled in media, as in October 2009 the state of South Carolina officially recognized them not guilty of a crime and posthumously acquitted.

Statistics show that approximately 7 out of every 100 death sentences imposed are wrong or unfair. In America, since 1976, about 30 innocents were executed; another 300 will be executed. However, in the past 30 years, only 80 death sentences have been quashed (Medwed 69). In almost every case, this happened only because private individuals or public organizations took the effort to independently investigate the crimes and provide the authorities with irrefutable evidence of the innocence of the prisoners awaiting death.

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In addition, racial and gender prejudices often influence fair judgment. For example, jurors in Washington State are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black-skinned defendant than for a white-skinned defendant in a similar case (Avery et al. 68-70). In 2018 in Louisiana, the probability of a death sentence was 97% higher for those whose victims were white than for those whose victims were black (Avery et al. 69-72). According to the US Department of Justice, ethnic minorities make up 67% of all federal prisoners (van Cleve 54). By gender, for the same period, the number of males sentenced to death was 71%, females – 29% (Avery et al. 191-193). The minimal representation of racial minorities in the structure of the prosecutor’s office, courts, and jury entails the formation of a special environment of “court as a white space,” which, in turn, leads to obvious imbalances in the statistics of the ratio of white and color Americans as victims and criminals sentenced to death.

The aforementioned serious problems in ensuring the fairness and impartiality of the sentences imposed by the American judicial system require urgent measures to correct the situation. First of all, a definition of the principle of justice should be given – the principle of justice, understood in the trinity of parties (material, formal and subjective), is a guiding, fundamental, normatively expressed moral idea that cannot be retreated from under the threat of destruction of the Criminal Procedure subsystem as a whole. This is in systemic unity with other principles of the criminal process. The consolidation of this principle in the law is possible, even desirable, although it is not easy to formulate it. However, it seems more important that this principle becomes a guideline for law enforcement practice.

At the same time, it should be noted that the fundamental problem of the justice of sentences in the United States remains the lack of an equal treatment regime for residents of various states and representatives of various racial and national groups. This fundamental problem can be solved in the face of a decrease in decentralization in the system of criminal law regulation. It also requires a comprehensive analysis of the scientific and legal foundations of justice as a requirement for a sentence in criminal cases, the features of regulation depending on the forms of legal proceedings in terms of inalienable human rights.

In order to ensure the achievement of true knowledge in the case as a basis for the justice of the sentence, the status of the investigator, the investigating officer should be reformed by excluding them from the participants of the prosecution. Drawing up of the indictment should be attributed to the powers of the prosecutor. The requirement of the comprehensiveness, completeness, and objectivity of the investigation should be embodied in the conclusions set out in the indictment and the presentation of the prosecutor based on the results of the preliminary investigation. The task of the court is to re-evaluate independently the case file on the lawfulness of the procedure for concluding a pre-trial agreement, fulfilling its conditions, as well as confirming the conclusion that the charge is justified.


Avery, Joseph et al. Bias in the Law: A Definitive Look at Racial Prejudice in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. Lexington Books, 2010.

Huff, Ronald C. and Martin Killias. Wrongful Convictions and Miscarriages of Justice: Causes and Remedies in North American and European Criminal Justice Systems. Routledge, 2013.

Medwed, Daniel S. Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution: Twenty-Five Years Freeing the Innocent. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

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Ross, Alf et al. On Law and Justice. OUP Oxford, 2019.

van Cleve, Nicole G. Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court. Stanford University Press, 2017.

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