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Sullivan reports: "At least 87 people were set free for crimes they did not commit last year, the highest number since researchers began keeping track more than 20 years ago. Some of those

David Ranta speaks with reporters after being freed by a judge in March 2013. Ranta spent more than two decades in prison before a reinvestigation of his case cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him in the shooting of a Brooklyn rabbi. (photo: Mary Altaffer/AP)
David Ranta speaks with reporters after being freed by a judge in March 2013. Ranta spent more than two decades in prison before a reinvestigation of his case cast serious doubt on evidence used to convict him in the shooting of a Brooklyn rabbi. (photo: Mary Altaffer/AP)


Exonerations On the Rise, and Not Just Because of DNA

By Laura Sullivan, National Public Radio

10 February 14

 

2013 was a record-breaking year for exonerations in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations.

At least 87 people were set free for crimes they did not commit last year, the highest number since researchers began keeping track more than 20 years ago. Some of those people spent decades in prison before release.

And it's no longer just DNA evidence that's driving exonerations, finds. It's because police and prosecutors have been more willing to investigate themselves.

"It's taken a while for people to begin to believe these unfortunate and very distasteful facts," says Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor who edits the registry, a joint project between Michigan and Northwestern University's law school.

"The number of exonerations — and the number, in particular, of ones where police officers and prosecutors have initiated the process or cooperated in the process — has grown dramatically," he says.

Conviction Integrity Units

Only one-fifth of the exonerations last year relied on newly tested DNA. More than 30 percent occurred because law enforcement agencies reopened a long-closed case or handed over their records to someone else who wanted to take a look.

Gross says that's a sea change from just 10 years ago.

"The sharp, cold shower that DNA gave to the criminal justice system has made us realize that we have to re-examine other cases as well," he says. "That was a serious wake-up call, because that showed we made mistakes in a lot of cases where it never occurred to anybody that a mistake had been made."

Nowhere is this change more visible than in district attorneys' offices across the country. New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and others have opened "conviction integrity units," with the sole function of reviewing old cases and ensuring that the agency got it right.

But Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, takes issue with the idea that prosecutors are more willing to open old cases than before.

"We always did that, we just didn't call them something," Burns says of the conviction integrity units. "We always reviewed big cases, multiple murders or high-profile cases. What you're seeing now is that it's institutionalized — it's given a name, probably a line item on a budget in a large office — and that's good as well."

Building Public Trust

There are 2,500 district attorneys' offices across the country. Burns says many, if not all, would be happy to have such a unit. But in most cases, it's just not possible. Several hundred of the offices have only one or two prosecutors on staff.

Burns says that while there may be more reviews happening, there is also simply more attention paid to wrongful convictions. He says it rarely makes news when prosecutors willingly test DNA in an old case and it turns out the offender was guilty.

Still, he says being open to examining old cases is good for prosecutors because it builds public trust.

"Anything we can do to ensure the integrity of a conviction is a positive and good thing, and we're for that," Burns says.

That's going to become more important in coming years as the number of exonerations based on DNA evidence decline. These days, if there is DNA to test, it's matched — or not matched — to a suspect long before anyone sees a courtroom.


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+8 # Texas Aggie 2014-02-10 20:47
"We always did that, we just didn't call them something," Burns says

BS!!! District Attorneys have been fighting tooth and nail against allowing old cases to be opened up for new DNA techniques. They know darn well that they've sent innocent people to jail and they don't want the public to find out about it.
 
 
+1 # elizabethblock 2014-02-11 19:59
In "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)," by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson [very good book!], there is an extensive discussion of wrongful convictions. They are almost NEVER reversed by the same people who committed them in the first place - you need new police, new prosecutors, etc.

We defend our mistakes, even when we know they are mistakes. E.g. the prosecuting attorney in the David Milgaard case - he was exonerated after 23 years in prison for a murder committed by someone else - said he was cleared on a "technicality." DNA, a technicality.
 
 
0 # John S. Browne 2014-02-12 19:13
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Thank you, Elizabeth. Would you please post that entire comment on the Dylan Farrow versus Woody Allen, and vise versa, threads. The presumption of guilt in the threads in question is off the charts, based on appearance and all kinds of other subjective "criteria" that have absolutely no place in the United States of America, where EVERYBODY is supposed to be presumed innocent, BY EVERYONE, until correctly PROVEN guilty IN A COURT OF LAW, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT.

But, as I've pointed out in those threads, most "Amerikans" presume most accused people guilty in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the SUPREME laws of the U.S., that EVERY SINGLE American is supposed to obey; which is why, proven by your facts, that prosecutors, judges and juries wrongly convict so many people. It chaps my hide to no end.

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