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In her ruling freeing Ellen Reasonover from prison, U.S. District Court Judge Jean Hamilton found plenty of precedent. But neither Hamilton nor anybody else can say definitively how often wrongful convictions occur. The only certainty, as her ruling suggests, is they are far more prevalent than generally acknowledged. So what constitutes a wrongful conviction? There is no single commonly accepted definition among the academics, lawyers, and journalists who have attempted to catalog the problem, but most have focused on three main types: THE WRONG PERSON: A prisoner has been released because the actual perpetrator has been identified beyond a doubt. This is the most restrictive definition. PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT: There was reasonable doubt of guilt, but circumstances coalesced to convict the defendant anyway — frequently because the defense, the jury, or the judge never knew the whole story due to prosecutors failing to turn over exculpatory evidence. This is the most common category, and it certainly describes the Reasonover case. REVERSIBLE ERROR: A prisoner’s trial was so unfair that the truth is not known. The flaws cover a wide range: biased jury selection, refusal of a judge to sequester a jury or grant a change of venue, questionable instructions to the jury, rejection of state of mind defenses (insanity, entrapment), and the like. For decades, researchers have found that wrongful convictions result primarily from erroneous inferences based on circumstantial evidence; mistaken identification, whether honestly made or driven by vengeance; and perjury. Sadly, some of the worst offenders are prosecutors themselves. Regardless of how high a barrier there is to formally punishing a prosecutor — and usually the immunity hurdle is quite high — most judges are loath to probe or criticize blatant wrongdoing by these officers of the courts. Reasonover’s case was no exception, at least until its final stages. Despite strong indications that the prosecution had not disclosed exculpatory evidence, a Missouri appellate court in 1986 brushed aside questions of what the evidence might prove. That court seemed trapped in its own circular logic: We don’t know what the evidence might show, the court said, so we can’t say if it would have made a difference. Thirteen years later, and only with enormous effort by Reasonover’s defenders, Judge Hamilton found the answer and freed Reasonover.

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