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Pursuing exonerations for wrongful convictions, but without DNA!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

The work of the Innocence Project gets a lot of attention. Justifiably so. But did you know that DNA evidence plays no role whatsoever in 90-95% of convictions and therefore, cannot be used to pursue future innocence claims? Pacific Standard has an informative review of non-DNA exonerations that is worth a read.

They talk about EXI–the Exoneration Initiative, a project that takes on cases without DNA evidence in an effort “to exonerate the actually innocent”. Prosecutors work hard to maintain and protect the conviction. As difficult as exonerations are when DNA evidence is available, it is far more difficult without it. Exoneration efforts consume thousands of volunteer work hours and can take years to resolve.

Their cases sometimes hinge on false confessions experts who do are expensive, and who are often not allowed to testify in court. Other times their cases revolve around challenging eyewitness or informant testimony, forensic evidence, the conduct and actions of the arresting or investigating police officers and prosecutors or defense attorneys. As prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys know, once a jury renders a guilty verdict, the accused is now the convict, and all assumptions of innocence cease. The bar is set very high for reversal and exoneration, and achieving this result is exceptionally difficult.

We’ve written about false confessions before and have recommended a non-fiction account by Ray Bonner on wrongful conviction as well as a fictional account from John Grisham. There is nothing entertaining however, in the realities of being imprisoned for a crime you did not commit.

As we’ve listened to mock jurors struggling to comprehend false confessions and why anyone could possibly confess to a heinous crime they did not commit–the hopelessness that is the life of the wrongfully convicted becomes palpable. Even when jurors are told there is no dispute about the person’s innocence–it is hard for them to accept. “Then why was there a confession?” They are appalled at such an extreme miscarriage of justice. But many of them are just as appalled that anyone would falsely confess and thus, they see the false confessor as having significant responsibility for their subsequent conviction and incarceration. Among some, it is easier to blame the victim of false imprisonment than to imagine that the system could go so horribly wrong.

Recently, we listened to mock jurors struggle with a case like this and were surprised to hear reality TV actually educating the mock jurors about the pressures of the interrogation room. Two of the mock jurors watched a show called The First 48 on A&E Television. Evidently, they watched it a lot, and boy did they like it! They were able to describe the “real-life” pressures in the interrogation room and make the idea of a false confession make more sense to the other mock jurors. As one skeptic said, “Well, obviously I know it can happen because I’ve read about DNA exonerations–but it still makes no sense to me that anyone would confess to murder when they didn’t do it. What was wrong with him?” There was no sympathy for the cascade of errors often seen in wrongful conviction cases (e.g., evidence errors, witness errors, police errors, and more) but there was also little sympathy for the man who’d lost his entire young adulthood, both parents and a sibling to his (wrongful) time in prison. “If he had just stood his ground and not confessed, we wouldn’t be here now!”

It’s a nightmare you cannot escape. Kafka comes to mind… Day after day after day. Having advocates like the Innocence Project or the Exoneration Initiative after such a miscarriage of justice is truly a ray of sunlight in a very dark (and typically very, very long) time. Pursuing the evidence needed to free the wrongfully convicted is often a thankless job until an exoneration is granted. That happens more often for the Innocence Project than it does for the Exoneration Initiative–just because of the nature of their focus. We want to thank both of them. They keep showing up after everyone else has gone home.


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