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DNA Exonerations Nationwide

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Posted: January 15, 2016   11:55 AM

There have been 337 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.

• The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 37 states; since 2000, there have been 263 exonerations.

• 20 of the 336 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row. Another 16 were charged with capital crimes but not sentenced to death.

• The average length of time served by exonerees is 14 years. The total number of years served is approximately 4,606.

• The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions was 26.5.

Races of the 336 exonerees:

206 African Americans
104 Caucasians
25 Latinos
2 Asian American

• The true suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 166 of the DNA exoneration casesThose actual perpetrators went on to be convicted of 146 additional crimes, including 77 sexual assaults, 34 murders, and 35 other violent crimes while the innocent sat behind bars for their earlier offenses.

• 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).

• 71 percent of the people exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated. 30 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.

• An Innocence Project review of our closed cases from 2004 - 2010 revealed that 22 percent of cases were closed because of lost or destroyed evidence.

• The Innocence Project was involved in 177 of the 337 DNA exonerations. Others were helped by Innocence Network organizations, private attorneys and by pro se defendants in a few instances.

• 33 of the DNA exonerees pled guilty to crimes they did not commit.

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. Many wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing involve multiple causes.

Eyewitness Misidentification Testimony was a factor in more than 70 percent percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions. At least 43 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, legal, and law enforcement organizations and have been adopted in numerous states from New Jersey and North Carolina, to Georgia and Texas, as well as large cities like Minneapolis and Seattle, and many smaller jurisdictions. Read more.

Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science played a role in 46 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. While DNA testing was developed through extensive scientific research at top academic centers, many other forensic techniques – such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis and shoe print comparisons – have never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation. Meanwhile, forensics techniques that have been properly validated – such as serology, commonly known as blood typing – are sometimes improperly conducted or inaccurately conveyed in trial testimony. In other wrongful conviction cases, forensic scientists have engaged in misconduct. Read more.

False confessions and incriminating statements were present in approximately 31 percent of cases. Looking at only the homicide cases, false confessions are the leading contributing factor - contributing to 71 (63%) of the 113 homicide cases among the DNA exonerations. Thirty-three of the 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 provide an accurate record of the proceedings and provide fact-finders with a solid understanding of the questioning that led to the confession or admission.

Informants contributed to wrongful convictions in 16 percent of cases. The continued use of jailhouse informants and other incentivized witnesses is a demonstrated contributing cause to wrongful convictions. A tragic number of innocent individuals have been forced to confront these types of situations without any clear protections against untruthful testimony. A comprehensive study of the nation’s first 200 DNA exonerations revealed that 18% were convicted, at least in part, on the basis of informant, jailhouse informant or cooperating alleged co-perpetrator testimony. There are many reasons as to why a witness might lie and without the necessary process for regulating and disclosing informant statements before their testimony taints fact-finder judgment, these harmful actions will continue to pervert the justice system. Read more.