According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 139 people were exonerated of crimes in the U.S. last year. Some 2,100 have been exonerated since 1989, when DNA evidence was first used to exonerate someone. Today, people are being found innocent using a variety of methods that don't always involve DNA, but the principle remains the same: Sometimes, the criminal justice system convicts innocent people.
David Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, but it seems that conviction was wrongful. The state said he shot a woman from his hometown in 2000. The victim was killed outside a bar she owned with her fiancée, perhaps over $300 in receipts. Robinson was sentenced to life without parole.
When evidence of a convicted person's actual innocence comes forward, we imagine that prosecutors immediately ask a judge to void the conviction and release the defendant. We imagine the judge apologizing on behalf of the state. Later, depending on the circumstances, the defendant might be compensated for the time they spent imprisoned unjustly.
Demetrius Smith always insisted he was not involved in the 2008 shooting he was convicted of. He never agreed to plead guilty. He entered what is known as an "Alford plea," which is essentially a no contest plea. The defendant maintains his or her innocence while acknowledging the state has a convincing case.
Launched by CBS in 2000, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" has been called the most successful television series of all time. Between the original series, which ran for five seasons, and spinoffs that include "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY" and "CSI: Cyber," the TV brand has generated 800 episodes, spawned a number of comic books, video games and novels, and served as the inspiration for a traveling museum exhibit.
ProPublica has produced some great work in the past year on the tragic consequences of prosecutors who are hell-bent on convicting individuals of crimes even when the evidence is thin or clearly suspect.
When Wilbert Jones was 19, he was arrested. He was convicted of aggravated rape based entirely on a highly questionable identification by the victim, according to the judge who recently released him. The woman, a nurse, had picked him out of a lineup months after the crime and was careful to tell police that her assailant had been taller and had a "much rougher" voice.
After learning that its own hair and fiber analysis methods were faulty, the FBI has tried to identify all criminal convictions that relied on such evidence. The agency has initiated a nationwide review of all cases involving such evidence before 2000, when the FBI switched to the use of mitochondrial DNA analysis instead of the older techniques.
For decades, Richard Phillips has insisted upon his innocence in a 1971 murder in Detroit. Now 71, Phillips may finally be released from prison after his co-defendant admitted Phillips played no role in the crime. A judge recently dismissed his conviction, although he also granted prosecutors a new trial. Prosecutors in Wayne County, Michigan, have vowed to appeal the reversal.
Any person who duly reflects upon DNA-related stories that have prominently surfaced in media reports in recent years understands well the double-edged sword wielded by investigators who assert possession of unassailable truth conferred through science.