Over 250 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and four of them were women. In the news media, as well as the courtroom, the issue of wrongful convictions most commonly centers on cases involving male perpetrators and male exonerees. Far less recognized are the experiences of women who have been wrongfully convicted. An understanding of how DNA testing has helped overturn wrongful convictions since 1989 offers some insight into why this is so.
DNA testing is available in only a fraction of criminal cases; usually violent crimes where biological evidence such as blood, semen, saliva or hair might have been left behind at the crime scene. In fact, over 80% of the DNA exoneration cases involve sexual assault, since biological evidence is often gathered and stored in the form of a rape kit and might be available for testing years or even decades after the crime occurred. The four female DNA exonerees—Paula Gray, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden and Ada JoAnn Taylor—were all wrongfully convicted as accomplices of rape and murders perpetrated by men. They served a combined total of 38 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
These four women represent only those who have been proven innocent through DNA testing—not the total number of women who have been wrongfully convicted. Ever since the days of the Salem witch trials, women as well as men have been victims of the American criminal justice system. There is no accurate accounting of the total number of women who have been wrongfully convicted throughout history – or how many women are currently imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.
As DNA testing becomes increasingly sophisticated—through “touch DNA,” and other methods that allow trace amounts of DNA to be tested—it may have more of an impact on crimes involving female perpetrators.Read more about the women who have been exonerated through DNA testing:Paula GrayAda JoAnn TaylorDebra SheldenKathy GonzalezMore from other cases in which women were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated:Beverly MonroeGloria Killian