Wrongful Convictions of Sexual Assault

Wrongful convictions of sexual assault are a widespread problem. As of June 2016, 285 persons have been exonerated of adult sexual assault convictions, and 203 persons exonerated of child sex abuse. Sexual assault, including child sex abuse, is the second most common crime associated with wrongful convictions, following homicide (National Registry of ExonerationsTable 2). One study found that up to 15% of men serving time for rape in Virginia had been wrongfully convicted (Urban Institute, page 6).

Three developments portend an even greater number of wrongful convictions of sexual assault in the future:

  1. Proposals to the American Law Institute to revise its Model Penal Code for Sexual Assault, which would expand definitions of sexual assault.
  2. Expansion of so-called “believe the victim” investigations, which undermine the notion of objective and impartial approaches
  3. Over-criminalization of sex crimes, as indicated by a dramatic rise in the number of persons — especially black men — listed in sex offender registries

Exonerations by Contributing FactorThe graph, right, displays the most common contributing factors to wrongful convictions for child sex abuse, adult sexual assault, homicide, and other crime categories. For child sex abuse, the leading contributing factors are perjury or false accusations (83%) and official misconduct (46%), according to the National Registry of Exonerations. For sexual assault, the leading contributing factors are mistaken witness identification (70%), official misconduct (38%), and perjury or false accusations (37%).

The CPI Wrongful Convictions of Sexual Assault Program engages in variety of policy development efforts, and has compiled resource information for lawyers, researchers, policymakers, and concerned citizens:

Policy Development:

Wrongfully Accused or Convicted Persons: