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11 – Hypothetical Cases for Teaching Skills for Critical Analysis of Wrongful Convictions


Ann Frost, Department of Law, Societies and Justice, Department of Sociology, College of Arts and Sciences, UW Seattle


This poster illustrates a teaching strategy using hypothetical cases to teach students to analyze cases of wrongful conviction. This strategy has been used in my course Miscarriages of justice in which we ask the question: Why are some people, against whom there is only weak evidence, arrested, convicted–and sometimes even executed?

A complicated set of legal and social factors shape criminal case outcomes, and we use hypothetical cases to examine how social forces intersect with and shape institutional factors and legal processes to produce miscarriages of justice. We analyze professional misconduct and its institutional causes, and consider how legal rules and procedures themselves, including reliance upon eyewitness identification, inadequate legal defense, and limits on the appeals process, contribute to wrongful conviction. Use of hypothetical cases helps students develop skills in considering how various reforms might alleviate these problems, or whether these problems are more durable consequences of racial and class inequality.

Students analyze hypothetical cases to identify errors in the case, evaluate why they occurred and their impact, apply legal and constitutional safeguards and analyze the breakdown of those safeguards, synthesize their learning on human error and bias in creating proposals for reform, assess the impact of errors on life after exoneration, and reach conclusions on the policy implications of errors leading to wrongful convictions.

While students read academic articles and analyzes of real cases, use of hypothetical cases allows students to hone these skills in a case that has no clear outcome and has not been previously analyzed.

I have applied this strategy in two iterations of the course and have collected survey responses from students on how they view the experience. I hope to collect further data and adapt the strategy to other courses and show that it can be successful across a variety of course topics.