Wrongfully Convicted? How Did This Happen? P2 - Sparrow Law Firm

What else? DNA.

The first use of DNA evidence — to convict someone — was in 1987 in England. The first use in the U.S. was a year later in 1988, this time to clear a Chicago man wrongfully convicted of rape.

The National Registry of Exonerations has compiled a database of exonerations in the U.S. since 1989 — the years since 1989 are often referred to as the “modern era” of exonerations, largely because of DNA testing. According to the organization’s research, the first North Carolina prisoner was cleared of all charges thanks to new evidence that proved his innocence in 1991. Since then, 31 more prisoners have been exonerated, though not as many with DNA as you’d think: 14 prisoners were cleared with new DNA evidence, and 18 without.

An interesting aside: Of the 32, only 10 were not identified as “black.” Of the 14 cleared with DNA evidence, 11 were black.

These men and women were all convicted of violent crimes — sexual assault, murder, robbery and others — but there is no mention of anyone cleared of, say, drug trafficking or a theft crime. And that is one of the points raised in the essay we were talking about in our March 23 post.

The Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3% and 5% of all U.S. prisoners are innocent. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 6,899,000 people were incarcerated during 2013. At the low end, then, about 16,000 men and women are sitting in jail or prison wondering how to clear their names.

A 2014 study of death sentences in the U.S. from 1973 to 2004 found that 117 men and women had been exonerated. That works out to 1.6 percent, but the researchers suggested that there could be as many as 200 more, for a total of 4.1 percent. All of them could have been freed and cleared of charges if someone had taken up their cause.

The author closes with the next logical question: Is there an acceptable number of people wrongfully convicted, their freedom — or their lives — sacrificed for something someone else did? How many wrongful convictions can we accept as the cost of doing justice?

Source: The Crime Report, “ Freakishly Rare Anomaly’,” David J. Krajicek, Feb. 9, 2015