If you have been accused of a crime, you are guaranteed certain procedural and evidentiary protections throughout your investigation and trial. Any breach of those safeguards can result in tragic consequences, according to a new national study.

The report, entitled the National Registry of Exonerations, indicates that more than 2,000 people have been freed from prison after being wrongly convicted of serious crimes — including sex offenses and homicides — since 1989. The database, said to be the largest of its kind, has been tracking exonerations since 1989, the period when DNA testing came into common use. Two Midwestern law schools compiled the data in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of why the criminal justice system in Florida and throughout the county continues to fail the falsely accused.

The report’s authors discovered several causes for the systemic failure, including police corruption, faulty or dishonest eyewitness testimony, and — surprisingly — false confessions. In some cases, suspects accused of rape had confessed after persistent and prolonged questioning, even though DNA evidence later revealed that they were not the perpetrators. According to one commentator, few were aware of the serious problem of false confessions before this study.

Eyewitness identification can be a serious issue in a criminal investigation. Prosecutors and the police are supposed to abide by several protections governing the use of evidence, but studies have shown that police interviewing techniques may sometimes taint information gathering.

If you have been charged with a crime, it may be easy to forget that you are still entitled to protections when the police begin questioning you. You may be intimidated and not sure how to prepare your best defense. At a time like that, you want an attorney on your side.

Source: Huffington Post, “Criminal Exonerations: 2,000 Convicted Then Exonerated In U.S. Over Last 23 Years, Says Study,” Pete Yost, May 21, 2010