Nov/Dec 2011 Case Digest

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A Brief History of Wrongful Convictions

Splash GraphicIn any system of justice, there is an inherent risk that innocent people may be wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. Indeed, the first documented wrongful conviction in the United States occurred in 1812,1 and researchers Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau identified 400 cases of wrongful convictions in murder cases between 1900 and 1991.2 It is not until recent years, however, that the problem of wrongful convictions has entered the public’s consciousness in a meaningful way.

In 1989, Gary Dotson became the first person in the United States to be exonerated of a crime based on DNA testing, after spending 12 years in an Illinois prison for a rape he did not commit.3 Unlike witness recantations or other less concrete types of evidence, DNA has the ability to definitively exclude someone as the perpetrator of a crime, thus erasing any lingering doubts about their guilt. Dotson’s exoneration therefore was the tip of the iceberg. In 1992, recognizing the power of DNA, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld formed the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, which seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals based on DNA testing. To date, 217 innocent people have been exonerated as a result of DNA testing.4

In addition, the media and policymakers have become increasingly alarmed by the number of individuals on United States death rows who have been proven innocent.5 The Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law and the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern’s journalism school have exposed more than a score of such errors. The involvement of law and journalism students in such work has helped rebut the argument that the exonerations mean that “the system works.”

The media and policymakers therefore have been confronted with the issue as never before, which has helped spark a new movement to reform the criminal justice system. Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and former Illinois Governor George Ryan both placed moratoriums on executions in their respective states because of concerns that innocent people might be executed. Governor Ryan, a Republican, eventually commuted the sentences of everyone on Illinois death row because he was concerned that an innocent person might be executed.

Legislative bodies also have been actively pursuing reform. The United States Congress overwhelmingly passed the Justice for All Act, which includes the Innocence Protection Act and will enable death row inmates to have their DNA tested and help establish systems to ensure that death penalty trials are fair. Both the District of Columbia and Virginia have passed legislation to ensure that innocent individuals can bring evidence of their innocence before the courts, even if their time for appeals has run out. In recent years, Maryland has adopted eyewitness ID reforms, crime lab reforms, and reforms to eyewitness identification procedures. The District of Columbia has passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations and is considering a bill that would dramatically improve eyewitness identification procedures.

The high profile of such DNA and death penalty cases also has led to the development of organizations like the Innocence Project in several states. In 2000, a group of area attorneys formed the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (“MAIP”). MAIP’s mission is to seek the exoneration and release from incarceration of persons who have been convicted of crimes that they did not commit and who are serving sentences in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. To date, MAIP has received requests for assistance from more than 3,500 individuals and, in 2001, secured the exoneration of Marvin Anderson, a Virginia man who had served 15 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. MAIP also has been intimately involved in a groundbreaking Virginia project to perform post-conviction DNA testing in nearly 1,000 cases in which biological evidence had been unexpectedly saved by the state crime lab.

Despite the importance of DNA testing, however, it is not a panacea. Only a small percentage of all cases involve testable DNA evidence, and most of those are rape and sexual assault cases, which make up a small percentage of the prison population. Thus, DNA exonerations really are the tip of the iceberg. Thus, MAIP – unlike some Innocence Projects – accepts both DNA and non-DNA cases. Though they are more difficult, the problems in those cases are just as significant, and the work on those cases can be particularly rewarding for students.

1 Rob Warden, America’s First Wrongful Murder Conviction Case (Jan. 31, 2005), at
2 See Michael L. Radelet et al., In Spite of Innocence (1992).
3 See Barry Scheck et al., actual innocence 51 (2000).
4 Innocence Project, at (last visited June 10, 2008) (listing the number of individuals whose innocence has been proven based on DNA testing).
5 As of September 15, 2005, 121 people had been exonerated from United States death rows. See Death Penalty Information Center, Innocence: Freed From Death Row, at (last visited on September 15, 2005) (listing individuals who have been exonerated from United States death rows since Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)).