Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Innocence Project: Fixing a Broken Justice System One Exoneration at a Time

Let me finish up my posts on our BROKEN criminal justice system by spotlighting the Innocence Project and their most recent victory. While I am not a big fan of lawyers (especially the ambulance chasing ones which advertise for clients who may have mesothelioma or may have taken a particular drug once upon a time) I am truly grateful for this group of  lawyers in the Innocence Project who unselfishly give their time and resources to bringing justice to many who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy org. dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

There have been 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.
• The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in35 states; since 2000, there have been 222 exonerations.
• 17 of the 289 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
• The average length of time served by exonerees is 13.5 years. The total number of years served is approximately 3,800.
• The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions was 27.
Races of the 289 exonerees:
180 African Americans
82 Caucasians
21 Latinos
2 Asian American
4 whose race is unknown
• The true suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 139 of the DNA exoneration cases.
• Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.

• In more than 25 percent of cases in a National Institute of Justice study, suspects were excluded once DNA testing was conducted during the criminal investigation (the study, conducted in 1995, included 10,060 cases where testing was performed by FBI labs).

• About half of the people exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated. 27 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia have passed laws to compensate people who were wrongfully incarcerated. Awards under these statutes vary from state to state.

• 22 percent of cases closed by the Innocence Project since 2004 were closed because of lost or missing evidence.

• About 80 percent of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing were single perpetrator crimes. Nearly 75 percent of the single perpetrator crimes involved eyewitness misidentifications, and about 75 percent of them were non-homicide cases. In about half of the single perpetrator cases, the real perpetrator has been identified.

Leading Causes of Wrongful Convictions
These DNA exoneration cases have provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects that can be precisely identified and addressed. For more than 15 years, the Innocence Project has worked to pinpoint these trends.

Eyewitness Misidentification Testimony was a factor in nearly 75 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions.

At least 40 percent of these eyewitness identifications involved a cross racial identification (race data is currently only available on the victim, not for non-victim eyewitnesses). Studies have shown that people are less able to recognize faces of a different race than their own. These suggested reforms are embraced by leading criminal justice organizations and have been adopted in the states of New Jersey and North Carolina, large cities like Minneapolis and Seattle, and many smaller jurisdictions.

False confessions and incriminating statements lead to wrongful convictions in approximately 25 percent of cases. In 35 percent of false confession or admission cases, the defendant was 18 years old or younger and/or developmentally disabled. Twenty-two of the first 265 DNA exonerees pled guilty to crimes they did not commit.

The Innocence Project encourages police departments to electronically record all custodial interrogations in their entirety in order to prevent coercion and to provide an accurate record of the proceedings. More than 500 jurisdictions have voluntarily adopted policies to record interrogations. State supreme courts have taken action in Alaska, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia require the taping of interrogations in homicide cases. 

Informants contributed to wrongful convictions in 19 percent of cases. Whenever informant testimony is used, the Innocence Project recommends that the judge instruct the jury that most informant testimony is unreliable as it may be offered in return for deals, special treatment, or the dropping of charges. Prosecutors should also reveal any incentive the informant might receive, and all communication between prosecutors and informants should be recorded. 

To read more, go to Also, read John Grisham's The Innocent Man, his legal non-fiction thriller about murder and injustice in a small town.

                                            Chris Ochoa was proven innocent by DNA testing in 2002
                                            after spending 12 yrs in Texas prisons for a murder he 
                                            didn't commit.

                                             Steven Barnes was freed on Nov. 23, 2008 after spending
                                             nearly 20 yrs in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

                                                           Julia Ormand: Innocence Project PSA

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