In 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the
Department of Justice to report to her on a phenomenon becoming
troublingly familiar: persons initially convicted and imprisoned, who
were later released through postconviction DNA testing. The resulting study, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by
Science was released in June of 1996. The report identified and
described 28 cases in which DNA evidence proved that the convicted
persons could not have committed the crimes for which they had been convicted and imprisoned.
In response to the findings detailed in Convicted by
Juries, Exonerated by Science, the Department of Justice established
the "National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence" in order to
"maximize the value of DNA in our criminal justice system." This first
report of the Commission acknowledges respect for the value of finality
in the criminal justice system, while strongly encouraging "the pursuit
of truth." The report suggests that the taking up of claims of actual
innocence (demonstrated by DNA evidence) should be valued over mechanical
adherence to time limits on appeals, or other procedural and institutional bars to justice. The report makes detailed recommendations for defense
counsel, prosecutors, judges, and forensic laboratories, as well as
reviewing the legal and biological issues that arise in postconviction
In January of 1995, Guy Paul Morin, a Toronto man
convicted of murdering a nine-year-old girl some ten years earlier, was
acquitted of the charge based on new DNA evidence that showed he could
not have committed the crime. Ontario officials quickly moved to
establish a commission with a wide mandate to review the specifics of
the case, as well as the general effects of DNA evidence on the
administration of justice in Canada. Public hearings began in February
of 1997 and continued for 146 days. The final report numbered some
1,400 pages and made extensive recommendations for reforming the
Canadian criminal justice system in light of the DNA revolution.
Capital convictions of innocent defendants are not rare
"diconnected accidents," as some still attempt to maintain in the face
of mounting evidence to the contrary, according to professor Samuel
Gross. To the contrary, Gross concludes, "the steady stream of errors
we see. . . is a predictable consequence of our system of investigating
and prosecuting capital murder." The errors that we uncover in
particular cases where innocence is discovered should "advertise the
existence of others that we have missed," but often all that is done is
to stop the execution and release the prisioner with no further inquiry.
In this 1998 law review article, professor Gross rigorously pursues the
question at the center of the capital punishment debate that others put
off: "Why are innocent people regularly sentenced to
For more than three decades, professor Hugo Adam Bedau
has pursued the question of miscarriages of justice in capital cases in
the United States, publishing inventories of such cases dating from the
late-nineteenth century. In the 1980s, professor Bedau teamed with
professor Michael Radelet; the research of Bedau and Radelet now informs
almost every serious debate on the topic. In this law review article,
Bedau and Radelet draw on their past research and case inventories to
inform a discussion concept of "innocence," the sorts of evidence on
which innocence claims are often based, and how all of this plays into
official and public understanding and debate about the death penalty.
Public support for the death penalty seems based on an
underlying assumption that only the guilty are executed -- an assumption
that is facing serious challenge from rising numbers of exonerations in
captial cases based on new DNA evidence. This US. News and World Report
feature reconsiders the death penalty debate in light of rising numbers
of wrongful convictions.
In this extensive report for the Atlantic Monthly,
journalist Alan Berlow considers the "horrifyingly likely" prospect that
innocent people will be executed in America. Berlow relates case
histories, reviews the latest statistics and government reports, records
the doubts about the death penalty of former prosecutors, judges, and
prison officials, offers a diagnosis of the problem, and proposes
As more prisoners are exonerated by DNA evidence, some
are filing claims for their lost years in prison--what are their lives worth?
Not very much, according to this 1999 report published by the American
Bar Association Journal. "The majority either get nothing or scrape and
claw for merely a token sum. . ."
"It seems strange that so little attention has been
given to one of the most flagrant of all publicly imposed wrongs -- the
plight of the innocent victim of unjust conviction in criminal cases."
These words, written in 1932 by Yale law professor Edwin M. Borchard,
retain a disappointingly contemporary ring. Even the amounts of money
paid by states to wrongly convicted persons -- from $5,000 to $10,000 --
have not changed much from Borchard's time.