Lara Bazelon | an excerpt adapted from Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction | Beacon Press | 24 minutes (6,738 words)
The National Registry of Exonerations is a small, nonprofit research project founded in 2012. What the project lacks in manpower it makes up in zeal, documenting every known exoneration dating back to 1989, the first year that DNA exonerations were recorded in the United States. Staff members collect detailed information about each case from court documents and news reports, provide a comprehensive narrative about the case, and break down the data into numerous categories, including gender, race, geography, crime of conviction, factors that contributed to the wrongful conviction, and whether the case involved DNA. The registry’s website provides detailed graphs that set out the cause or causes of the wrongful convictions and chart their frequency over time.
On March 7, 2017, the registry released a report summarizing the data it had documented since its founding: 1,994 exonerations. (The number is now above 2,100.) Seventy-eight percent of the exonerations did not involve DNA evidence. This finding surprises many people, as it seems at odds with the way that crime is prosecuted on popular television shows and in movies, where the perpetrator inevitably leaves behind a tiny but undeniable bit of himself. Skin follicles are collected from under the victim’s fingernails, blood or semen is retrieved from a stain, a trace of saliva is lifted from a soda can or cigarette butt. In fictionalized accounts, diligent detectives and technicians rapidly collect and analyze this trace DNA evidence. More often than not, when the episode concludes, the bad guy has been conclusively identified, apprehended, and locked away.
The reality is much messier and more complicated. Even when DNA exists, backlogs and bureaucracy mean that it can take months, if not years, to test. Crime labs also come to erroneous conclusions, often because the technicians are incompetent, overwhelmed, or even corrupt. In 2010, at a San Francisco crime laboratory, a technician stole some of the cocaine she was supposed to be testing, resulting in a scandal that led to the dismissal of seventeen hundred pending criminal cases. Five years later, in the same laboratory, two other bad apples — a technician and her immediate supervisor — were discovered to have committed misconduct so serious it required the San Francisco district attorney’s office to review fourteen hundred criminal cases. Both employees had failed DNA proficiency testing examinations administered by a national crime lab accrediting agency a year earlier, but had kept their jobs. At least one found conclusive DNA matches where none existed. Read more…