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The problem of wrongful conviction in America: Part I

How do you compensate someone for the loss of years of their life? How do you compensate someone after wrongfully taking away their freedom? How do you compensate someone after destroying their reputation by erroneously accusing them of a horrible crime? In short, what compensation would possibly be appropriate for individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned?

This is a question being asked by many here in Wisconsin and around the country. In December, we wrote about a Wisconsin man who was recently exonerated after spending 20 years in prison for an act of rape that he didn’t commit. His case highlights the pitiful compensation that Wisconsin currently offers to the wrongfully imprisoned. His case also highlights a much larger trend: the rapidly rising number of exonerations in the United States.

A database called the National Registry of Exonerations has kept yearly records of all known exonerations in the U.S. since 1989. A recent report based on that data shows that in 2013, at least 87 wrongfully convicted individuals were exonerated. That was up slightly from 2012, during which 79 people were exonerated.

The majority of exonerations in recent years have been for wrongful convictions related to sexual assault and homicide. Contrary to what many would assume, however, most of the exonerations in the last two years have been non-DNA exonerations. This means that DNA evidence was either unnecessary in proving innocence or did not play a central evidentiary role.

Please check back next week as we continue our discussion about 2013’s list of exonerations. We’ll examine statistics in greater detail, including the problems that frequently contributed to wrongful convictions.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Criminal Exonerations at All-Time High," Jacob Gershman, Feb. 4, 2014

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