America’s 250th DNA exoneration raises questions about how often we send the wrong person to prison.
Freddie Peacock of Rochester, New York, was convicted of rape in 1976. Last week he became the 250th person to be exonerated by DNA testing since 1989. According to a new report by the Innocence Project, those 250 prisoners served 3,160 years between them; 17 spent time on death row. Remarkably, 67 percent of them were convicted after 2000—a decade after the onset of modern DNA testing. The glaring question here is, How many more are there?
Calculating the percentage of innocents now in prison is a tricky and controversial process. The numerator itself is difficult enough to figure out. The certainty of DNA testing means we can be positive the 250 cases listed in the Innocence Project report didn’t commit the crimes for which they were convicted, and that number also continues to rise. But there are hundreds of other cases in which convictions have been overturned due to a lack of evidence, recantation of eyewitness testimony, or police or prosecutorial misconduct, but for which there was no DNA evidence to establish definitive guilt or innocence. Those were wrongful convictions in that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to establish reasonable doubt, but we can’t be sure all the accused were factually innocent.
Most prosecutors fight requests for post-conviction DNA testing. That means the discovery of wrongful convictions is limited by the time and resources available to the Innocence Project and similar legal aid organizations to fight for a test in court. It’s notable that in one of the few jurisdictions where the district attorney is actively seeking out wrongful convictions—Dallas County, Texas—the county by itself has seen more exonerations than all but a handful of individual states. If prosecutors in other jurisdictions were to follow Dallas D.A. Craig Watkins’ lead, that 250 figure would be significantly higher.
[Read more at Reason.com]
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