Law Schools

Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions Launches Women's Project

Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions has launched the nation’s first and only project devoted to identifying and rectifying wrongful convictions of women.

The Women’s Project was unveiled at a press conference Thursday at the law school’s downtown Chicago campus.

Senior staff attorney Karen Daniel, one of the project’s leaders, said the project will focus both on litigation aimed at exonerating women in prison for crimes they did not commit and on research into the factors that disproportionately lead to the wrongful conviction of women.

The long-term goal of the research, Daniel said, is to foster reforms designed to improve the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system in ways that make it less treacherous for innocent women.

Daniel was joined at the press conference by four women exonerees and by a fifth woman whose arson and murder convictions were recently overturned by an Indiana appeals court based on prosecutors’ use of outdated fire science evidence. Prosecutors are still deciding whether to retry the case.

Daniel said women represent a small segment of the wrongfully convicted. Out of the 1,022 documented exonerations in this country since 1989, only 66 involved women. While DNA evidence was a factor in 341 of those cases, it played a part in only seven of the cases involving women.

But the cases involving women include some “startling similarities”, Daniel said: 21 percent of female exonerees were convicted of murdering their children or other loved ones; 20 percent were convicted of harming a child in their care; 40 percent were the victims of police or prosecutorial abuse; and 23 percent falsely confessed to a crime.

Based on that data, Daniel said, the center’s research will initially focus on two areas; “situational” cases involving women caretakers whose convictions were based entirely on circumstantial evidence and false confessions.

“I think it’s entirely possible that women respond to interrogations differently than men do,” she said.

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