Exonerated from Death Row: Wrongful Conviction of Innocent People


In September 2012 Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th person exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. He was also the 18th person exonerated by DNA evidence on death row. This highlights an important problem that exists in our country that is often ignored or overlooked by the majority of the population, that our criminal justice system almost regularly imprisons innocent people.

Despite the protections afforded by the constitution and the bill of rights the criminal justice system in the United States is seriously flawed, and commits egregious errors. This is most troubling given that the writer's of the Bill of Rights would rather let a guilty person walk free over convicting an innocent person. This approach can be said to exist because the Bill of Rights exists to protect the rights of individuals and the imprisonment and sentence of death of an innocent person can arguably be the most egregious breach of person freedoms guaranteed to us in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Causes of Wrongful Conviction

  1. Eyewitness Misidentification
  2. Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
  3. False Confessions
  4. Government Misconduct
  5. Informants
  6. Bad Lawyering

Even beyond the violation of human rights, the wrongful conviction of an innocent person also fails to convict the actual perpetrator of the crime. There have been many cases where DNA testing conducted years later has exonerated an individual and at the same time led to the conviction of the actual perpetrator, who committed additional serous crimes like murder or rape during that time he remained free.

The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted person through DNA testing. Most of the clients of the Innocence Project are very poor and have very little or no legal help or have used up any available avenue for post-conviction relief. Prior to the Innocence Project's founding in 1992, there was widespread belief that our criminal justice system did not wrongfully convict individuals. In fact many thought it would be impossible to wrongfully convict thanks to all the legal projections afforded to criminal defendants. But thank to the Innocence project we now know this is not true, and we have a better idea of how this happens.

"Eyewitness misidentification is widely recognized as the leading cause of wrongful conviction in the U.S., accounting for more wrongful convictions than all other causes combined."

-The Justice Project's Policy In Review

Eyewitness Misidentification

Witness misidentification plays a roll in 75% of overturned convictions. The human memory is not as reliable as we often think it is, and it is not as reliable as juries are convinced they are. Witness testimony if often very persuasive in a court room and this combined with the inaccuracy of it makes it the most common factor in wrongful convictions. Also, police departments have regularly made serious errors in the way police lineups are conducted.

Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science

For the last 20 years DNA testing has helped identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent but there are other forensic techniques that were widely used prior to this time that were unreliable or unvalidated. Techniques like comparing hairs, bite marks, show tracks, and tire tracks have been unreliable and tend to rely heavily on the opinion of the technician responsible for comparing the samples. These techniques have been proven to be unreliable, that is, different technicians can reasonable come to different conclusions. Even techniques that have been validated like blood typing have been used improperly at trial. In many instances forensic analysts have even committed serious misconduct like fabricating results.

False Confessions / Admissions

Before DNA testing many legal scholars believed that it was impossible for an innocent person to make an incriminating statement, confession, or to plea guilty. Jurors also took to this line of thinking, as a reasonable person would rightfully question why an innocent person would admit to a crime he or she did not commit. But, in nearly a fourth of all exoneration cases an innocent person has confessed or made incriminating statements. In many of those cases, there was DNA evidence that excluded the defendant but jurors felt that the confession carried more weight than the DNA evidence.

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