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Investigating Innocence: Comprehensive Pre-trial Defense Investigation to Prevent Wrongful Convictions


The inability of public defense systems to provide sufficiently zealous legal representation to indigent clients is a long-standing and pervasive problem in the United States. The issue of excessive caseloads for public defenders is much discussed and studied, while the relatively more extreme deficit of public defense investigators is rarely mentioned. A competent defense investigation can forestall overcharging and excessive punishment as well as lay groundwork for dismissals and acquittals. Disproportionate consequences for defendants who have been falsely accused or whose charges are inflated arguably stem as much from anemic fact-finding practices of the defense as from limited or unexercised legal expertise. Indigent defendants, represented by lawyers whose access to investigative resources is frequently denied or severely truncated, may be at heightened risk of wrongful conviction and excessive punishment specifically as a result of this lack. My findings, drawn from a qualitative analysis of 366 cases listed in the National Registry of Exonerations in which Inadequate Legal Defense was deemed a contributor to a wrongful conviction, are consistent with such an assertion. Investigative failures were far more frequent than other types of legal inadequacies in the NRE’s ILD cases, appearing in 80.6% of cases, while trial errors were found in just 50.8% of these wrongful convictions. In 34.7% of cases, the failures were solely investigative. The larger implication is that the relative dearth of investigators in public defense systems is a problem deserving similar attention as the more commonly understood issue of too few lawyers handling too many cases.

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