Identifying and Charging True Perpetrators in Cases of Wrongful Convictions


  • Jennifer Weintraub University at Albany, SUNY
  • Kimberly Bernstein University at Albany, SUNY



wrongful convictions, true perpetrators, statutes of limitations, race, prosecutorial misconduct, innocence


True perpetrators—those who commit crimes that others were wrongfully convicted of—are a danger to society. Left unapprehended, these individuals often continue to commit crimes that could have otherwise been avoided. Despite the risk they pose, only about half of true perpetrators in DNA exoneration cases have been identified. Further, only 50% of those who have been identified have been charged with the wrongful conviction crime(s) they committed. Previous research on wrongful convictions, prosecutorial discretion in charging decisions, and prosecutors’ treatment of post-conviction innocence claims provide a starting point for investigating what factors underlie the identification and charging of true perpetrators. To explore these factors, we analyze 367 DNA exoneration cases and the resulting 161 identified true perpetrators. Results revealed that prosecutorial misconduct as a contributor to the wrongful conviction decreased the odds that a true perpetrator would be identified, but the odds increased if the victim was White and the exoneree was Black compared to if both were White. Odds of identification also decreased when, compared to murder, the most severe wrongful conviction crime type was child sex abuse or sexual assault. These factors were not significantly associated with the odds of an identified true perpetrator being charged with a wrongful conviction crime. A qualitative study revealed both definitively prohibitive and potentially influential factors that could influence a prosecutor’s decision not to charge an identified true perpetrator with these crimes. These findings indicate policy solutions that could hold true perpetrators of wrongful convictions crimes responsible for their actions.

Author Biographies

Jennifer Weintraub, University at Albany, SUNY

Jennifer N. Weintraub is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research is broadly characterized within miscarriages of justice, in particular, regarding wrongful convictions, legal decision-making, and public policy. Her recent work has appeared in such outlets as Criminology and Public PolicyJournal of Experimental Criminology; and Crime & Delinquency.

Kimberly Bernstein, University at Albany, SUNY

Kimberly Bernstein is a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, SUNY. She has served as the lab manager and a graduate research assistant for the Psychological Understandings of Legal Systems Encounters (PULSE) Lab at UAlbany since 2015, studying topics related to criminal and constitutional law, psychology and law, and miscarriages of justice. Her recent work has been published in Child Abuse & Neglect and Monitor on Psychology, and presented at the annual conferences for the American Psychology-Law Society and the American Society of Criminology.




How to Cite

Weintraub, J., & Bernstein, K. (2020). Identifying and Charging True Perpetrators in Cases of Wrongful Convictions. The Wrongful Conviction Law Review, 1(2), 181–225.