a bird and a bottle

More Evidence on DNA, um, Evidence
April 24, 2007, 4:20 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, politics

I’ve voiced before my concerns about the primacy of DNA evidence. But it’s power is impressive, and its ability to help people achieve justice shouldn’t be understated.

And not just some people. Lots of people.

USA Today reports today that 200 people have now been exonerated around the country based on DNA evidence.

The 200th person, Jerry Miller, will now be freed after spending 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It’s been 18 years sine the first DNA exoneration in 1989.

How big this is — the ramifications of these wrongful convictions on the lives of the exonerees and how difficult it has made it for them to reconstruct their lives — cannot be overstated. Barry Scheck, one of the founders of the Innocence Project and Mr. Miller’s attorney, gives us the context in a post up at the Huffington Post:

Jerry is 48 years old now. He has lost virtually his entire adult life to a wrongful conviction. And he is the 200th person in the United States who has been exonerated through DNA evidence.

I’m in Chicago for Jerry’s exoneration today, and it’s impossible not to think about all the other people who have walked out of prison after serving years or decades for crimes they did not commit. These 200 people are a remarkably diverse group – they include a rich man’s son in Oklahoma, homeless people, school teachers, day laborers, athletes and military veterans. But mostly they are African-American men without money to hire good lawyers (or, sometimes, any lawyers).

Combined, these 200 people have served about 2,500 years in prison – that’s roughly a million nights in prison.

As I read all of this, I can’t help but wonder: at what point will we (we = broader American society and American electeds) realize that these 200 are not a fluke? That there are more innocent men and women — likely exponentially more — sitting, rotting, in prisons around the country for crimes they did not commit. That there are some serious flaws in our jury system, not the least of which is how heavily we rely on eyewitness ID testimony, now known to be less than consistently reliable. That the racism that has long plagued the criminal justice system persists.

I’m not optimistic about system-wide changes or about the deconstruction of the prison industrial complex. But at some point, I have to think, it becomes insane not to expect some change, incremental though it may be.

8 Comments so far
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As I understand it, DNA exonerations – which are truly remarkable – have a dark side: anything short of DNA proof is now widely considered insufficient for an exoneration. Since DNA is not available in most cases, what are we doing to make sure DNA doesn’t free the next 200 people at the expense of hundreds of other who might have gone free otherwise? (Or is this just wishful thinking?) Any thoughts?

Comment by professorplum

Yes – DNA exonerations are truly remarkable because DNA evidence exists in so few cases. And the mere existence of DNA evidence in some cases is making it harder to exonerate people when DNA evidence doesn’t exist. I should have (and meant to) say that in the post. There need to be either other ways to exonerate people or a more accurate trial system, or, preferably, both.

I’m not sure what – if anything – we’re doing to make sure these 200 have not been freed at the expense of thousands of others…but you’re right that we’ve got to do something.

Comment by bean

Well, the question is, were there any high-profile exonerations before the use of DNA evidence became widespread?

Comment by Alon Levy

There is a really interesting documentary called After Innocence, about people who have been exonerated by the Innocence Project after their releases. The film shows the difficulties of trying to get your life back on track, especially considering the fact that exonerees are offered NO services, while parolees have access at least to (minimal) health and mental hygiene services. It can be just as hard to get a job or find a place to live, even with a cleared record.

I also agree that while the Innocence Project does great work, it is a huge problem that they only consider cases where DNA evidence is available. Unfortunately, judges and prosecutors still seem to the think that recanted testimonies and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct don’t prove enough for an exoneration.

Comment by sarahb

were there any high-profile exonerations before the use of DNA evidence became widespread?

Hurricane Carter; but then, there is still dissension about whether he was innocent, because people don’t really trust recantations. (I don’t know much about the details of the case though, so I can’t say whether there’s any basis for the dissension.)

Comment by Matt Weiner

The fact that people don’t trust recantations is a real problem, and was part of what I was trying to say in my comment earlier (i’ve posted about this before too). Basically, people don’t trust recantations, and they REALLY don’t trust them now. Now people think, “well, if there’s no DNA evidence to acquit him, he must be guilty.” What they forget is that DNA evidence is collected in so few cases and lost in so many more.

Comment by bean

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Comment by criminal defense los federal angeles lawyer

Show Recommendation –
NBC Dateline Tuesday May 22 The Ada Hour Injustice of Wrongful Convictions Featuring Dennis Fritz Author of Journey Toward Justice

NBC Dateline will air on Tuesday May 22 The Ada Hour.
The Ada Hour will chronicle the repeated injustice of wrongful convictions.
In addition to John Grisham, District Attorney Bill Peterson, Barry Scheck and Robert Mayer the piece will feature Dennis Fritz the author of Journey Toward Justice.
Please feel free to post your comments about The Ada Hour on my blog Barbara’s Journey Toward Justice

Comment by Barbara's Journey Toward Justice

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