The First 250 DNA Exonerations: Transforming the Criminal Justice System

The first 250 DNA exonerations nationwide are a collective lesson about the causes of wrongful convictions. Science has irrefutably proven that each of these 250 individuals were wrongfully convicted, and the certainty in these cases enables us to learn from them—to identify how errors occur in criminal investigations, prosecutions and post-conviction proceedings, and to develop remedies that can prevent future injustice. The DNA exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg (since DNA testing is an option in so few cases), and they have already transformed the criminal justice system.

A small number of reforms were enacted before DNA became available in criminal cases, but the DNA exonerations over the last two decades have sparked a groundswell of policy reform. Following is a breakdown, by major issues in criminal justice reform, of policies that have been enacted at least in part because of DNA exonerations and reforms that are currently pending.

1. Criminal Justice Reform Commissions

These commissions study the causes and remedies of wrongful convictions. They vary slightly in terms of initiation, composition and operation, but they all seek to identify the various means of enhancing the accuracy of criminal investigations and prosecutions in their states.

Reforms implemented:  Government entities in California, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin have established Criminal Justice Reform Commissions.

Pending reforms: In the past 12 months, efforts to form commissions have been initiated in Alabama, Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma.

2. Access to Post-Conviction DNA Testing

Prisoners cannot automatically get access to DNA testing to prove their innocence, so they often rely on state statutes — and sometimes still face a protracted legal battle. The laws currently on the books vary, but they should include an appropriate and clear path for consideration of post-conviction testing of DNA evidence.

Reforms implemented: 47 states currently provide statutory access to post-conviction DNA testing (Alaska, Massachusetts & Oklahoma do not).

Pending reforms: In the past 12 months, legislation has been introduced in Alaska and Massachusetts to provide statutory access to post-conviction DNA testing.

3. Eyewitness Identification Reform

A range of procedural reforms can improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification. These reforms have been recognized and adopted by police, prosecutors and courts throughout the nation, and have been recommended by national justice organizations, including the National Institute of Justice and the American Bar Association. The benefits of these reforms are corroborated by over 25 years of peer-reviewed research.

Reforms implemented: The states of New Jersey and North Carolina and jurisdictions including Denver, CO; Boston, MA; Northampton, MA; Madison, WI; Winston Salem, NC; Hennepin County (Minneapolis-St. Paul), MN; Ramsey County, MN; Santa Clara County, CA; Dallas, TX and Virginia Beach, VA have implemented a range of recommended reforms as standard procedures. Wisconsin has promulgated guidelines and trainings, strongly encouraging local jurisdictions to incorporate suggested reforms.

Pending reforms: In the past twelve months, legislation to address eyewitness misidentification has been introduced in Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

4. Preservation of Evidence

Preserving DNA evidence from crime scenes is critical to settling post-conviction claims of innocence — and to enabling police to solve cases involving the same perpetrator, as well as "cold cases." Proper retention, cataloguing, and handling of biological evidence from crime scenes is critically important.

Reforms implemented: 32 states and the District of Columbia have statutes directing some aspect of the preservation of criminal evidence.

Pending reforms: In the past twelve months, legislative efforts to mandate the preservation of evidence have been initiated in Alaska, New Jersey, Ohio and Massachusetts.

5. Forensic Science Standards and Oversight

Although unvalidated or improper forensic science (both inadvertent and calculated) is a leading contributor to wrongful convictions, states have historically done little to remedy — or even investigate — these problems despite proof of their existence. States should mandate that independent external investigations be conducted into credible allegations of misconduct, negligence or error in forensic findings. A recent National Academy of Sciences report found serious problems in forensic science and recommended that Congress create the federal capacity to stimulate scientific research, set standards and ensure that those standards are being followed nationwide.

Reforms implemented: Federal law, passed in 2004, requires states to have mechanisms to investigate allegations of forensic misconduct, negligence or error in order to receive federal funds for state crime labs. Minnesota, New York, Virginia and Texas have created the most active, broadly representative forensic science commissions to help ensure the quality and reliability of forensic evidence.

Pending reforms: In the past twelve months, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Washington and Vermont, have all sought policy reform to create or improve existing statewide forensic science commissions. Federal legislation to implement the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations will be introduced in the months ahead.

6. Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted

After they are exonerated, people often have no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence. Significant immediate services, monetary compensation, and an official apology have proven critical to exonerated persons trying to live a healthy life after exoneration.

Reforms implemented: The federal government, the District of Columbia and the following states have compensation statutes of some form:  Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Pending reforms: In the past twelve months, legislation to create or improve compensation for wrongfully convicted people was introduced in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington.

7. Mandated Recording of Interrogations

Electronically recording entire custodial interrogations is proven to reduce false confessions because it creates an objective record of what transpired during the course of the interrogation process.

Reforms implemented: 500 jurisdictions nationwide have voluntarily adopted policies to record interrogations. Legislation has been enacted in Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia requiring the recording of custodial interrogations.  State supreme courts have taken action in Alaska, Iowa, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Pending reforms: Legislative efforts are currently pending in Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont to mandate the recording of interrogations.

Learn more:

Learn about your state's policies on our interactive map.

Review reforms proven to prevent wrongful convictions in our "Fix the System" section.