Wrongful Convictions of Sexual Assault

Wrongful convictions of sexual assault are a widespread problem. As of the end of 2018, over 300 persons have been exonerated of adult sexual assault convictions, and over 250 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).

The graph on the right displays the most common contributing factors to wrongful convictions for child sex abuse and adult sexual assault (as of February, 2019). For child sex abuse, the leading contributing factors are perjury or false accusations (84%) and official misconduct (44%). For sexual assault, the leading contributing factors are mistaken witness identification (67%), perjury or false accusations (42%), and official misconduct (38%).

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

  1. Over-criminalization of sex crimes, as indicated by a dramatic rise in the number of persons — especially black men — listed in sex offender registries
  2. Expansion of so-called “victim-centered” investigations, which undermine the notion of objective and impartial approaches — see below.

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