Looking into the Mirror with Both Eyes Open
p. 2, Exonerations in the U.S., 1989 - 2012
Ten innocent defendants were exonerated after death, even though it is highly unusual to reconsider the guilt of defendants who are dead. Many more left prison with disabling injuries or diseases. Some died within a year or two of release, sometimes at their own hands. Others returned to prison for new crimes that they did commit. Almost all irretrievably lost large portions of their lives – their youth, the childhood of their children, the last years of their parents’ lives, their careers, their marriages.
The worst part is that they are the fortunate few.
After four years of being concerned about wrongful convictions, I can't recall an instance when I was emotionally halted by something I was reading, but this did it! I couldn't take in what I had just read and go on. The authors of this report have not lost the human faces in this data. The tragedies have not been blunted by cold statistics.
I believe that 50 years from now people will look back on 2012 as the year the American criminal justice system finally looked itself in the mirror with both eyes wide open.
One eye was opened in 1989 with the first exoneration by DNA, not because there hadn't been exonerations in the past, but because of the absolute nature of the evidence. They convicted an innocent person! In 2012 with few governmental systems in place to provide this kind of data, the authors of this report built a national database so we could see our imperfections all lined up in a row for the first time. Now we are looking at all exonerations, DNA and non-DNA alike. We have to ask ourselves "What has gone wrong with our system?"
The number of wrongful convictions where there is actual innocence will never be fully known, but until now, no one even knew how many exonerations there have been. Unlike wrongful convictions, exonerations are measurable, yet no one person, group or agency has ever pulled together all the records into one database until now. So, what does this report tell us?
- Instead of the media reporting only the number of DNA exonerations by the Innocence Project in New York, currently at 292, there have been 908 DNA and non-DNA exonerations since 1989 (as of June 5, 2012).
- It does not include 1170 defendants whose convictions were dismissed in 13 “group exonerations” that followed the discovery of major police scandals.
- The report confidently states that the database has a long way to go before it even comes close to including all exonerations.
I personally know a person whose name is missing from the list. Just how underreported is this first attempt at a national database? The researchers are troubled by the fact that many of the lower profile exoneration cases were only learned about because the researchers happened to know the lawyers involved. The researchers state, "We have no doubt that we have missed the vast majority of low-visibility exonerations."
Keep in mind that up until now we have been talking about exonerations. Researchers are painfully aware that recorded exonerations are only a small proportion of the total number of wrongful convictions. In collecting this data, they acquire a keen awareness of what must be missing.
- If 1170 are part of 13 group exonerations involving major police scandals, does anyone think all cases of this kind of corruption have been uncovered? Of course not.
- Exonerations are overwhelmingly rape and murder cases. What about those falsely convicted of lesser crimes whom are never exonerated because they lack the motivation and resources to seek a legal exoneration and they simply serve their time?
- What about all the cases in which the defendant took a plea deal, not because he/she is guilty, but, despite being innocent, decided not to risk 20 years in prison when a plea would give them 2?
- Then there is the logical practical element that there must be cases of wrongful conviction that will never see the light of day because there is no way to prove they are innocent. In view of the high number exonerations (legally proven wrongful convictions), this number, though ultimately unknowable, could be huge.
We encourage people to read this report. Soak it in. Share it with others: congressmen, senators, state and national, judges, prosecutors and on. Help those who are a part of the system to look in the mirror with both eyes open.
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