In any system of justice, there is an inherent risk that innocent people may be wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. The first documented wrongful conviction in the United States occurred in 1812, and researchers have identified hundreds of wrongful convictions in rape and murder cases since. It was not until recent years, however, that the problem of wrongful convictions entered the public’s consciousness in a meaningful way.
In 1989, Gary Dotson became the first person in the United States to be exonerated of a crime as the result of DNA testing, after spending 12 years in an Illinois prison for a rape he did not commit. Dotson’s exoneration was the tip of the iceberg. To date, 311 innocent prisoners have been exonerated as a result of DNA testing, including some who spent time on death row. These 311 exonerees came from 36 different states and served an average of 12 years each – and more than 3000 years combined – in prison. In more than half of these cases, the biological evidence that resulted in exoneration also led to identification of the actual perpetrator. DNA evidence has established without any doubt that our criminal justice system can make mistakes, causing an innocent person to be convicted and imprisoned while the true perpetrator remains free.
DNA exonerations have also raised important questions about the accuracy and fairness of our criminal justice system: (click on each link to learn more about some of the causes behind wrongful convictions)
- Eyewitnesses (even crime victims) often get it wrong.
- Innocent people will confess to things they did not do.
- People with something to gain will lie at trial.
- Many forensic disciplines are deeply flawed.
- Police and prosecutors will cut corners to win a conviction.
- Defense attorneys do not always fight for their clients.
While DNA evidence is the most compelling way of proving innocence, the vast majority of criminal cases do not involve DNA-testable material. DNA exonerees are, in a sense, the “fortunate” ones who were accused of crimes in which the actual perpetrator left biological evidence at the scene. The vast majority of crimes do not involve biological evidence, but they pose the same risk of wrongful convictions. In such cases, the wrongly convicted person may never find a way of proving his or her innocence.
In 1992, recognizing the power of DNA evidence, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld formed the Innocence Project in New York, which seeks to prove prisoner claims of innocence through DNA testing. The high profile nature of DNA exonerations and death penalty cases involving innocent prisoners that followed, led to the development of similar innocence projects across the country.