There have been 305 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S.
Eighteen of those exonerees had been sentenced to death.
The exonerees served a total of 4,102 years in prison.
In half of these cases, DNA testing identified the actual perpetrator.
“Wrongful conviction is the criminal justice system’s worst nightmare,” says Nina Morrison to a rapt class of students at Vanderbilt’s law school.
Morrison is senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing and to reform a justice system rife with error. “DNA is unique in its ability to get to the truth,” she adds, standing in front of a giant screen illuminated by a montage of photographs of smiling men, all exonerees freed by her organization.
The glowing faces fade, and a quotation replaces them: “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” – Justice Learned Hand
It’s clear that Morrison is haunted by those ghosts, and their tangible incarnations—the men and women who serve on average 13.6 years for crimes they didn’t commit. “Many don’t live to see their exoneration,” she says, pausing as the words do their work on the silent room, packed with young law students.
With an attorney’s gift for narrative, Morrison tells two exonerees’ stories. “You look back,” she says steadily, “and you can’t believe they got convicted. James Waller, a 19-year-old with no criminal record, served ten years for a rape he didn’t commit. A witness misidentified him, and forensic evidence at the scene was woefully mishandled. Jeffrey Deskovic served 15 years for murdering a teenage classmate in 1989. Investigators interrogated the teen until he broke down and confessed; in 2006, a DNA test exonerated him and IDed the real killer.
Morrison not only helps to free innocent people; she advocates for simple changes in the criminal justice system that could lead to fewer wrongful convictions. Open file discovery, she points out, would give defense teams better access to the government’s case files. And changing eyewitness ID procedures might lead to fewer mistaken identifications.
The Innocence Project estimates that 2.3 to 5% of U.S. prisoners are innocent. In many cases, there’s no DNA evidence to test. And with Innocence Project attorneys still working cases from the 70s and 80s, there’s a long line of ghosts waiting for their chance at justice.
What are the main errors law enforcement and prosecutors make that lead to wrongful convictions?
The leading causes of wrongful convictions are eyewitness misidentification, faulty forensics, false confessions, inadequate defense lawyers, and police and prosecutorial misconduct.
How can defense attorneys prevent this?
While inadequate representation can lead to wrongful convictions, many of the factors that cause people to be wrongly convicted are not in the control of defense lawyers. However, there are some reforms that law enforcement can enact that could prevent wrongful convictions, including mandatory recording of interrogations and conducting line ups in a double blind fashion, meaning that the officer who conducts the line up should not be told which person is the suspect.
How do you choose what cases to take?
We take any case where we believe DNA can prove innocence.
Do you make a determination about guilt or innocence when you take a case?
We try our best to let science determine guilt or innocence, which is why we only take cases where DNA is probative.
What are the biggest obstacles in the process of seeking an exoneration?
Since we rely almost exclusively on DNA, one of the biggest obstacles for us is getting access to evidence that can be submitted to DNA testing. Too often the evidence has been destroyed or is missing.
What needs to change in the criminal justice system to make wrongful convictions less frequent, and to make it easier to revisit questionable convictions?
We advocate for mandatory recording of interrogations to prevent false confessions and double blind administration of lineups to prevent officers from intentionally or inadvertently suggesting who a witness should pick out of a lineup. With regard to forensic practices, we believe that the federal government should conduct scientific testing to validate all the forensic disciplines and set standards.
What is life after prison like for exonerees? Are they compensated for the time they spent wrongfully incarcerated?
Life after exoneration varies greatly for people who have been wrongly convicted. Some are able to put the experience behind them relatively quickly while others never fully recover from the experience.
Those that are fortunate enough to have a supportive network of friends and family have the best chance of getting back on their feet. Finding meaningful work is difficult for most as they were behind bars during the most productive years of their career.
Twenty-seven states have law compensating those who have been wrongly convicted, but these laws vary widely.
Why do you find this work important/rewarding/enjoyable?
After 11 years at the Innocence Project, I can’t imagine doing anything more rewarding. It’s an honor and a privilege to help bring overdue justice to a wrongfully convicted person, especially since so many of our clients fought for years on their own to clear their names before they were able to secure legal assistance.
Another aspect of the work that is incredibly gratifying is the fact that our clients’ individual cases have helped lead to broader changes in the justice system, which may prevent the nightmare of wrongful conviction from happening to others in the future.