200th Wrongful Conviction Proven by DNA
How can you simultaneously be one of the unluckiest and luckiest men in America? Ask Jerry Miller, who yesterday became the 200th person exonerated by postconviction DNA testing. 200 people arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison for years (14 of whom had been sentenced to death), eventually to have their innocence established by scientific proof. 200 people who served a total of 2,475 years in prison, almost one million nights, for crimes they did not commit.
When Jerry Miller was 22 years old, the police picked him up after an officer said he resembled a composite sketch of a Chicago rapist. He was tried and convicted on the basis of the victim's subsequent misidentification, and served 24 years in prison before being released last year on parole. Since his release, he has lived as a registered sex offender, required to wear an electronic monitoring device at all times and prohibited from being alone with children or leaving his job for lunch.
For more than a quarter of a century, he maintained his innocence.
Through representation by the Innocence Project, Mr. Miller was able to secure a court order for testing DNA evidence in his case. The results: none of the forensic evidence came from Mr. Miller.
Sadly, Mr. Miller's case is not unusual. Just since 2000, there have been 135 DNA-based exonerations. There have been 27 in Illinois alone. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, considering that in many of the older cases where there was DNA evidence, it has been lost, destroyed, or consumed by original testing.
More disturbingly, the vast majority of crimes do not involve forensic evidence. Take robbery cases, for example: there are far more robbery cases than murder or rape cases; they are highly susceptible to misidentification; and they almost never involve forensic evidence, meaning that there are thousands of prisoners who are precluded from ever even having the chance to scientifically establish their innocence. So, despite the 200 exonerations, these cases are only a sliver of the nation's "innocence" cases, falling into a small category of almost exclusively murder and rape cases in which there was DNA evidence, and enough of it, and locatable, and which a court deemed appropriate for testing. This would be troubling in any criminal justice system, but none more so than in a country with 2.3 million people behind bars.
As for the 200 exonerations, Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, wrote in a blog on the Huffington Post yesterday that "these 200 people are a remarkably diverse group - they include a rich man's son in Oklahoma, homeless people, school teachers, day laborers, athletes and military veterans. But mostly they are African-American men without money to hire good lawyers (or, sometimes, any lawyers)."
It is not enough to recognize and lament such travesties of our criminal justice system; we must learn from these cases and use them to generate urgent reform throughout the system to prevent future wrongful convictions. As a result of these 200 cases, we know now, for instance, that in 77% of the 200 wrongful convictions proven by DNA evidence (including Mr. Miller's), mistaken eyewitness identification was a contributing (or sole) factor. Other common causes are forensic science errors (from simple mistakes to outright fraud), which played a role in nearly two-thirds of the wrongful convictions, and false confessions (as the result of coercive interrogations or defendants' limited mental capabilities), which existed in 25%.
Correcting these causes will not only protect the innocent from being arrested, but also from being harmed by the real perpetrator. Each time someone is wrongfully convicted, it means the actual culprit remains free. Indeed, in at least 30% of the 200 cases, DNA has led to the identification of the true perpetrator.
As Scheck notes, implementation of these critical reforms has already begun: "Dozens of cities and states have changed their eyewitness identification procedures to make them more accurate, 500 jurisdictions now record interrogations to prevent false confessions, the federal government has implemented important crime lab standards and 40 states now grant prisoners access to DNA testing that can prove their innocence. But it's not enough. The Innocence Project receives thousands of letters a year from prisoners and their families, detailing flawed investigations and trials that were predestined to convict the wrong person."
It will not be long until we reach 300, or 500, perhaps 700 exonerations, since present-day reforms can do nothing to help innocent victims of past wrongs currently languishing in prison. But the sooner each state, each police department, each prosecutor's office, each legislature, embraces reform within our criminal justice system, the sooner we will witness a decline in the number of wrongful convictions, and the longer it will take before we are discussing the 1,000th exoneration. While innocent people remain in jail doing time unjustly, time is of the essence for justice to be done.