Wrogful Convictions, The Innocence Project, January 26, 2009
Facts on Post-Conviction DNA Exonerations
The Innocence Project, January 26, 2009
There have been 232 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.
• The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 33 states; since 2000, there have been 167 exonerations.
• 17 of the 232 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
• The average length of time served by exonerees is 12 years. The total number of years served is approximately 2,894.
• The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions was 26.
Races of the 232 exonerees:
138 African Americans
1 Asian American
9 whose race is unknown
• The true suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 90 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. 25 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.
• 33 percent of cases closed by the Innocence Project were closed because of lost or missing evidence.
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 77 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions. Of that 77 percent, about 40 percent of cases where race is known involved cross-racial eyewitness identification. 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.
Limited, unreliable or fraudulent forensic science has played a role in 65 percent of wrongful convictions.
In over half of DNA exonerations, the misapplication of forensic disciplines—such as blood type testing, hair analysis, fingerprint analysis, bite mark analysis, and more—has played a role in convicting the innocent. In some cases, forensic scientists and prosecutors presented fraudulent, exaggerated, or otherwise tainted evidence to the judge or jury which led to the wrongful conviction. Three cases have even involved erroneous testimony about DNA test results.
False confessions and incriminating statements lead to wrongful convictions in 25 percent of cases. More than 500 jurisdictions now record interrogations to prevent false confessions.
False confessions are another leading cause of wrongful convictions. Twenty-five percent of cases involve a false confession or incriminating statement made by the defendant. In 35 percent of those cases, the defendant was 18 years old or younger and/or developmentally disabled. 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.
Snitches contributed to wrongful convictions in 15 percent of cases.
Another principal factor in wrongful convictions is the use of snitches, or jailhouse informants. Whenever snitch testimony is used, the Innocence Project recommends that the judge instruct the jury that most snitch 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 snitch might receive, and all communication between prosecutors and snitches should be recorded. Fifteen percent of wrongful convictions that were later overturned by DNA testing were caused in part by snitch testimony.