Hidden in plain view: The impact of popular beliefs and perceptions, held as factual knowledge about the Criminal Justice System, on incidences of wrongful accusation and conviction
Available research demonstrates that public perceptions and beliefs about the Criminal Justice System (CJS) differ from its actual processes and procedures, but there is little research on the effects of such a difference, specifically with regard to wrongful accusation and/or conviction of factually innocent persons, and their families.
Perceptions and beliefs, held as reliable and accurate knowledge, may impact on wrongful accusation/conviction of the factually innocent, both on the lived experiences of wrongly accused/convicted persons themselves, and on perceptions held about them (and responses to calls for case reviews) within the wider public. Although a great deal of research has been carried out on the subject of wrongful conviction generally, this has focussed, in the main, on legal, procedural and structural causes of wrongful conviction, and, in particular, on a small number of â€˜high profileâ€™ cases.
This research examines perceptions and beliefs held as knowledge by individuals claiming to be factually innocent, wrongly accused/convicted persons, and the results of attempts to employ such perceptions and beliefs to maintain claims of innocence.
Further, the experiences of family and friends of the wrongly convicted, whose lives continue in the community following the conviction of their family member, are examined, with particular attention to the interface of beliefs and perceptions between such families and the wider community. To a lesser extent, the role of the media, in shaping public opinion, the effects of media coverage on trial procedures and outcomes, and non-reporting or selective reporting is also addressed.
A series of semi-structured interviews was carried out throughout the UK, with wrongly accused/convicted persons, family members of those individuals, and members of groups and organisations working to highlight the problems of wrongful accusation and conviction. A survey aimed at examining key perceptions and beliefs, held as factual knowledge about the CJS within the wider public, was also conducted.
The analysis of the data indicated that not only do individuals and families attempt to employ erroneous perceptions and beliefs as factual knowledge in cases of wrongful accusation and conviction, but that such attempts feed into and support the case against the wrongly accused (in direct opposition to the aims and objectives of those employing them). Furthermore, knowledge of the actual workings of the CJS (held by CJS actors) can be, and is, used to exploit the ignorance of those so accused, and their family members. This is made possible because legal meanings of key words and phrases are vastly different from their commonly understood meanings, a factor known only to CJS actors, and not, generally, to the wider public.
Political rhetoric and media representations support and reinforce those commonly held understandings, simultaneously maintaining the inaccessible code of actual CJS processes, thereby influencing public perceptions of those who are accused and convicted.