Why Women Are Less Likely to Be Exonerated Using DNA Evidence

In a recent piece for Mother Jones, Molly Redden looked at why it can be particularly hard for wrongfully convicted women to be exonerated (Women make up about 11 percent of the people convicted of violent crimes, but just 6 percent of those exonerated of violent crimes). Despite their good intentions, most innocence projects fail to bring justice to wrongly convicted women.  Why? Karen Daniel and Judy Royal—lawyers with Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions —spent three years pursuing that question. Their research brought them a number of insights, including the fact that women are far less likely to be exonerated using DNA evidence:

Daniel and Royal started by digging deep into the exonerations database. Their first insight had to do with DNA evidence—the very breakthrough that launched the innocence movement a quarter century ago. “Women tend not to be convicted of the types of crimes that can be overturned based on the results of DNA testing,” Daniel explained. Men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of rapes and murders of strangers. These crimes are much more likely to leave behind DNA evidence that can rule out an innocent suspect, or point to the real rapist or killer.

But when women kill, they usually kill someone close to them. And in most of those cases, DNA isn’t relevant. When a woman is suspected of killing her husband or her child, investigators are likely to find her DNA all over the crime scene whether she’s guilty or innocent—so DNA testing can do little to exonerate her. Sure enough, 27 percent of the men in the exonerations registry were freed using DNA evidence. The same was true of only 7.6 percent of the women.

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