Skip to main content

Women and wrongful convictions: concepts and challenges

  • Debra Parkes (a1) and Emma Cunliffe (a2)

This paper draws from the wrongful convictions of women to interrogate the limits of dominant conceptions of wrongful conviction. Most North American innocence projects turn on a conception of demonstrable factual innocence. The paper argues that this focus is problematic as a matter of criminal law principle and presents particular difficulties for women. The paper identifies that family violence forms the primary context for both the conviction of women for violent crimes, and for women's wrongful convictions. Taking two key examples of family violence – child homicide and intimate partner violence – we illustrate that the prevailing focus on demonstrable factual innocence fits awkwardly with identified wrongful convictions in these areas, and argue that this focus may deflect attention from unidentified miscarriages of justice. We suggest that focusing on factual innocence undermines the criminal justice system's proper focus on state responsibilities, including the responsibility to protect women and children from harm, and the asymmetric burden of proof that applies in criminal cases.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Abel Laura K. and Vignola Susan (2010) ‘Economic and Other Benefits Associated with the Provision of Civil Legal Aid’, Seattle Journal for Social Justice 9(1): 139167.
Auerhahn Kathleen (2012) ‘“Social Control of the Self” and Pleading Guilty in Criminal Court’, International Review of Sociology 22(1): 95122.
Backhouse Constance (1999) Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900–1950. Toronto: University of Toronto Press for Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.
Balfour Gillian and Comack Elizabeth (eds) (2006) Criminalizing Women: Gender and (In)Justice in Neo-Liberal Times. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.
Bandes Susan (2008) ‘Framing Wrongful Convictions’, Utah Law Review 2008(1): 524.
Bandes Susan (2009) ‘Protecting the Innocent as the Primary Value of the Criminal Justice System’, book review of The Supreme Court on Trial: How the American Justice System Sacrifices Innocent Defendants by George C. Thomas III, Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 7: 413438.
Bedau Hugo A. and Radelet Michael L. (1987) ‘Miscarriages of Justice in Potentially Capital Cases’, Stanford Law Review 40(1): 21179.
Boyce Jillian (2013) Adult Criminal Court Statistics in Canada, 2011/2012. Report prepared for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Juristat. No. 85-002-X. Ottawa: Minister of Industry, Statistics Canada. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Boyce Jillian and Cotter Adam (2013) Homicide in Canada, 2012. Report prepared for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Juristat. No. 85-002-X. Ottawa: Minister of Industry, Statistics Canada. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Boyle Christine (1985) ‘Sexual Assault and the Feminist Judge’, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 1(1): 93107.
Brown Wendy (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Caddell Paul G. (1999) ‘The Guilty and the “Innocent”: An Examination of Alleged Cases of Wrongful Conviction from False Confessions’, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 22(2): 523603.
Caefs (CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF ELIZABETH FRY SOCIETIES) and Nwac (NATIVE WOMEN'S ASSOCIATION OF CANADA) (2008) ‘Women and the Canadian Legal System: Examining Situations of Hyper-Responsibility’, Canadian Woman Studies 26(3/4): 94104.
Cheng Kevin Kwok-yin (2013) ‘Pressures to Plead Guilty: Factors Affecting Plea Decisions in Hong Kong's Magistrates’ Courts’, British Journal of Criminology 53(2): 257275.
Comack Elizabeth (2006) ‘The Feminist Engagement with Criminology’, in G. Balfour and E. Comack (eds.), Criminalizing Women: Gender and (In)Justice in Neo-liberal Times. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, pp. 2255.
Comack Elizabeth (2014) ‘Theoretical Excursions’, in Comack E. (ed.), Locating Law: Race/Class/Gender/Sexuality Connections, 3rd edn. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 962.
Conaghan Joanne (2013) Law and Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cooney Mark (1994) ‘Evidence as Partisanship’, Law and Society Review 28(4): 833858.
Cunliffe Emma (2003) ‘Weeping on Cue: The Socio-Legal Construction of Motherhood in the Chamberlain Case.’ LLM, Law, UBC, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Cunliffe Emma (2009) ‘Infanticide: Legislative History and Current Questions’, Criminal Law Quarterly 55(1/2): 94119.
Cunliffe Emma (2011) Murder, Medicine and Motherhood. Oxford: Hart Publishing Ltd.
Cunliffe Emma (2013) ‘Ambiguities: Law, Morality and Subjectivity in H. L. A. Hart's The Concept of Law’, in Drakopoulou M. (ed.), Feminist Encounters with Legal Philosophy. Abingdon: Routledge, 185204.
Cunliffe Emma (2014) ‘Women and Child Homicide: Exploring the Role of Stereotypes about Gender, Race and Poverty in Contemporary Canadian Cases’, in Kilty J. (ed.), Within the Confines: Women and the Law in Canada. Toronto: CSPI, 223244.
Daly Kathleen (1994) Gender, Crime, and Punishment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Daly Kathleen and Chesney-Lind Meda (1988) ‘Feminism and Criminology’, Justice Quarterly 5(4): 497538.
Davies Margaret (2002) Asking the Law Question: The Dissolution of Legal Theory. Pyrmont, NSW: Lawbook Company.
Duncan Ian (2013) ‘After Murder Exoneration, Freed Man Wonders How Case Went Wrong’, Baltimore Sun, 9 November. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Dyck Jennifer (2013) ‘Stories from the Front: Realities of the Over-Incarceration of Aboriginal Women in Canada.’ LLM, Law, UBC, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Ericson Richard (1994) ‘The Decline of Innocence’ [audio-recording]. Lecture delivered to the Vancouver Institute, 12 March, 28 UBCLR 367, online: UBC cIRcle <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Ewick Patricia and Silbey Susan S. (1995) ‘Subversive Stories and Hegemonic Tales: Towards a Sociology of Narrative’, Law and Society Review 29(2): 197226.
Findley Keith A. (2011) ‘Defining Innocence’, Albany Law Review 74(3): 11571208.
Findley Keith A., Barnes Patrick D., MORAN David A. and SQUIRE Waney (2011) ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome, Abusive Head Trauma, and Actual Innocence: Getting it Right’, Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy 12(2): 209312.
Flowers Alison (2014) ‘Commentary: Is the Exoneree Movement Leaving Women Behind?’, WBEZ91.5, 20 May, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Goldwyn Tony (2010) Conviction. Fox Searchlight Pictures. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Goudge Stephen T. (2008) Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario: Report. Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Gould Jon B. and Leo Richard A. (2010) ‘One Hundred Years Later: Wrongful Convictions After a Century of Research’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 100(3): 825868.
Gross Samuel R. and O'brien Barbara (2008) ‘Frequency and Predictors of False Conviction: Why We Know So Little, and New Data on Capital Cases’, Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 5(4): 927962.
Gross Samuel R. and Shaffer Michael (2012) ‘Exonerations in the United States, 1989–2012: Report by the National Registry of Exonerations’, Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Hall Michael (2012) ‘Another Tale of Wrongful Conviction’, Texas Monthly, November, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Hamer David (2014) ‘Wrongful Convictions, Appeals, and the Finality Principle: The Need for a Criminal Cases Review Commission’, UNSW Law Journal 37(1): 270311.
Hamilton Alvin and Sinclair Murray (Commissioners) (1991) Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. Winnipeg: Province of Manitoba, the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Hasham Alyshah (2012) ‘Brenda Waudby Officially Innocent of Child Abuse’, Toronto Star, 27 June, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Hughes Emily (2011) ‘Innocence Unmodified’, North Carolina Law Review 89(4): 10831124.
Jackson Peter (2009) The Lovely Bones. DreamWorks Pictures. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Johnson Kevin (2013) ‘Eyewitness Rules Ignored, Wrongful Convictions Result’, USA TODAY, 11 June, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Jones Stephen (2011) ‘Under Pressure: Women Who Plead Guilty to Crimes They Have Not Committed’, Criminology and Criminal Justice 11(1): 7790.
Kaiser-Derrick Elspeth (2012) ‘Listening to What the Criminal Justice System Hears and the Stories It Tells: Judicial Sentencing Discourses about the Criminalization and Victimization of Aboriginal Women.’ LLM, Law, UBC, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Kennedy Helena (2004) Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy: A Multi-Agency Protocol for Care and Investigation. London: Royal College of Pathologists and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Lacey Nicola (2009) ‘Historicising Criminalisation: Conceptual and Empirical Issues’, Modern Law Review 72(6): 936960.
Lacey Nicola (2013) ‘The Rule of Law and the Political Economy of Criminalisation: An Agenda for Research’, Punishment and Society 15(4): 349366.
Lamer Antonio (2006) The Lamer Commission of Inquiry Pertaining to the Cases of: Ronald Dalton, Gregory Parsons, and Randy Druken. St John's, NL: Office of the Queen's Printer.
Lawrence Sonia N. and Williams Toni (2006) ‘Swallowed Up: Drug Couriers at the Borders of Canadian Sentencing’, University of Toronto Law Journal 56(4): 285332.
Leo Richard A. (2005) ‘Rethinking the Study of Miscarriages of Justice: Developing a Criminology of Wrongful Conviction’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21(3): 201223.
Macfarlane Bruce (2006) ‘Convicting the Innocent’, Manitoba Law Journal 31(3): 403487.
Martin Dianne L. (2001a) ‘Distorting the Prosecution Process: Informers, Mandatory Minimum Sentences, and Wrongful Convictions’, Osgoode Hall Law Journal 39(2/3): 513527.
Martin Dianne L. (2001b) ‘The Police Role in Wrongful Convictions: An International Comparative Study’, in Westervelt S. and Humphrey J. A. (eds), Wrongly Convicted: Perspectives on Failed Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 7795.
Medwed Daniel S. (2008) ‘Innocentrism’, University of Illinois Law Review 2008(5): 15491572.
Milgaard Joyce and Edwards Peter (1999) A Mother's Story: The Fight to Free My Son David. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.
Monture Patricia A. (2009) ‘Women and Risk: Aboriginal Women, Colonialism and Correctional Practice’, in Monture P. A. and McGuire P. D. (eds), First Voices: An Aboriginal Women's Reader. Toronto: Inanna Publications and Education Inc, 414422.
Monture-Angus Patricia (1995) Thunder in My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.
Morgan Jenny (2002) Who Kills Whom and Why: Looking Beyond Legal Categories (Victorian Law Reform Commission Occasional Paper). Melbourne: Victorian Law Reform Commission.
Morling Justice T. R. (1987) Report of the Commissioner the Hon. Mr. Justice T. R. Morling / Royal Commission of Inquiry into Chamberlain Convictions. Canberra: Government Printer, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Muftic Lisa R., Bouffard Jeffrey A. and Bouffard Leanna Allen (2007) ‘An Exploratory Study of Women Arrested for Intimate Partner Violence: Violent Women or Violent Resistance?’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence 22(6): 753774.
Natapoff Alexandra (2012) ‘Misdemeanors’, Southern California Law Review 85: 13131376.
National Registry Of Exonerations (2014) ‘Exonerations in 2013’, Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
New South Wales Law Reform Commission (2000) Report 95: The Right to Silence. Sydney: NSW Government. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Ofshe Richard J. and Leo Richard A. (1997) ‘The Social Psychology of Police Interrogation: The Theory and Classification of True and False Confessions’, Studies in Law, Politics and Society 16: 199.
Ontario Court Of Justice (2014) Criminal Court Statistics, ‘Clearance Rate Statistics: Ontario Court of Justice, All Criminal Cases, Ontario Overview April 2012–March 2014’. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Plaxton Michael (2002) ‘Are Wrongful Convictions Wrong? The Reasonable Doubt Standard and the Role of Innocence in Criminal Procedure’, Criminal Law Quarterly 46(3/4): 407446.
Pollack Shoshana (2000) ‘Outsiders Inside: The Social Context of Women's Lawbreaking and Imprisonment.’ PhD, Social Work, University of Toronto, online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Pollack Shoshana, GREEN Vivien and ALLSPACH Anke (2005) Women Charged with Domestic Violence in Toronto: The Unintended Consequences of Mandatory Charge Policies. Toronto: Woman Abuse Council of Toronto.
Poveda Tony G. (2001) ‘Estimating Wrongful Convictions’, Justice Quarterly 18(3): 689708.
Rattner Arye (1988) ‘Convicted but Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and the Criminal Justice System’, Law and Human Behavior 12(3): 283293.
Ratushny Judge Lynn (1997) Self-Defence Review: Final Report (Submitted to the Minister of Justice of Canada and the Solicitor General of Canada). Ottawa: Ministry of Justice.
Raymond Margaret (2001) ‘The Problem with Innocence’, Cleveland State Law Review 49(3): 449463.
Razack Sherene H. (2002) ‘Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George’, in Razack S. H. (ed.), Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines, 121156.
Risinger D. Michael (2007) ‘Innocents Convicted: An Empirically Justified Factual Wrongful Conviction Rate’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 97(3): 761806.
Roach Kent (2012) ‘Wrongful Convictions in Canada’, University of Cincinnati Law Review 80: 14651526.
Roberts Dorothy (1993) ‘Motherhood and Crime’, Iowa Law Review 79(1): 95141.
Ruesink Mitch and Free Marvin D. Jr. (2005) ‘Wrongful Convictions Among Women: An Exploratory Study of a Neglected Topic’, Women and Criminal Justice 16(4): 123.
Scheck Barry, NEUFELD Peter and DWYER Jim (2001) Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right. New York: Signet.
Schwartz Jennifer (2012) ‘Comparing Women and Men Who Kill’, in DeLisi M. and Conis P. J. (eds), Violent Offenders: Theory, Research, Policy, and Practice. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning, 105206.
Sebold Alice (2002) The Lovely Bones. New York: Back Bay Books.
Sheehy Elizabeth A. (2000) ‘Review of the Self-Defence Review’, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 12(1): 197234.
Sheehy Elizabeth A. (2001) ‘Battered Women and Mandatory Minimum Sentences’, Osgoode Hall Law Journal 39(2/3): 529554.
Sheehy Elizabeth A. (2005) ‘Causation, Common Sense, and the Common Law: Replacing Unexamined Assumptions with What We Know about Violence against Women or from Jane Doe to Bonnie Mooney’, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 17(1): 87116.
Sheehy Elizabeth A. (2014) Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Sheehy Elizabeth, Stubbs Julie and Tolmie Julia (2012) ‘Defences to Homicide for Battered Women: A Comparative Analysis of Laws in Australia, Canada and New Zealand’, Sydney Law Review 34(3): 467492.
Sherrin Christopher (2005) ‘False Confession and Admissions in Canadian Law’, Queen's Law Journal 30(2): 601659.
Simon Dan (2006) ‘Are Wrongful Convictions Episodic or Epidemic?’ Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Law & Society Association, 7–9 July 2006, quoted in Gould and Leo (2010), p. 832.
Smith Abbe (2010) ‘In Praise of the Guilty Project: A Criminal Defense Lawyer's Growing Anxiety about Innocence Projects’, University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change 13(3): 315329.
Statistics Canada (1995–2005) Homicide in Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Industry, Annual Reports. Online: <>.
Stuntz William J. (2001) ‘The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law’, Michigan Law Review 100(3): 505600.
Stuntz William J. (2011) The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Sugar Fran and Fox Lena (1989) ‘Nistum Peyako Séht'wawin Iskwewak: Breaking Chains’, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 3(2): 465482.
Tam Moy, COLE David P., GITTENS Margaret, WILLIAMS Toni, RATUSHNY Ed and SRI-SKANDA-RAJAH Sri-Guggan (Commissioners) (1995) Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario. Online: <> (last accessed 6 July 2015).
Thomas George C. (2008) The Supreme Court on Trial: How the American Justice System Sacrifices Innocent Defendants. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Trotter Gary T. (2004) ‘False Confessions and Wrongful Convictions’, Ottawa Law Review 35(2): 179210.
Weisberg Robert (2012) ‘Crime and Law: An American Tragedy: Surveying the Problems Plaguing the Criminal Justice System’, book review of The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William Stuntz, Harvard Law Review 125(6): 14251452.
Williams Toni (2009) ‘Intersectionality Analysis in the Sentencing of Aboriginal Women in Canada: What Difference Does it Make?’, in Grabham E., Cooper D., Krishnadas J. and Herman D. (eds), Intersectionality and Beyond: Law, Power and the Politics of Location. New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 79104.
Wilson Margo I. and Daly Martin (1992) ‘Who Kills Whom in Spouse Killings? On the Exceptional Sex Ratio of Spousal Homicides in the United States’, Criminology 30(2): 189216.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Journal of Law in Context
  • ISSN: 1744-5523
  • EISSN: 1744-5531
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-law-in-context
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 19
Total number of PDF views: 90 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 449 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.