Earl Smith, PhD – Angela J. Hattery, PhD
The main reason that we know so little about false convictions is that, by
definition, they are hidden from view [i].
What is an exoneration anyway? An exoneration is a unique status in the criminal justice system, quite simply it refers to a case in which a person who has been convicted of a crime is later proved to be innocent of that crime. Exoneration is reserved for those people who were “factually innocent” but who despite their actual innocence were wrongly convicted of a crime and served time in prison. In other words, as our late friend and exonoree, Darryl Hunt was fond of saying, what an exoneration is not:
“It is not a technicality, I was convicted of strong armed robbery but I actually only
committed armed robbery. An exoneration means I wasn’t anywhere near the crime,
I had nothing to do with the crime, I’m completely, factually, innocent.”
After all of the years that we have been studying incarceration and the criminal justice system, we should not be at all surprised that exonerations are controversial, but we are. If we believe that the criminal justice system we have set up in our representative democracy is designed to seek the truth, than any hint that we have gotten it wrong should result in a full deployment of all the resources necessary in order to make it right. And yet, in nearly every exoneration we are aware of, and we’ve read hundreds of cases, wrongfully convicted and incarcerated people face a steep uphill climb just to get the chance to prove their innocence. Prosecutors fight the admission of new evidence, even when they withheld explicatory evidence that could have proved the defendants innocence. United States Supreme Court justices have even inserted themselves into the debate. The US Supreme Court ruled that those convicted of a crime do not have a constitutional right to have their DNA tested, one of the most common routes to proving one’s innocence, even in death penalty cases. Justices Thomas and Scalia have argued, for example, that if one has been duly convicted, and especially if there have been appeals, as is always the case in death penalty cases, one has been provided all of the opportunities to prove one’s innocence and if despite being able to access all of these tools for proving one’s innocence a judge and/or jury ruled to convict, then the conviction should stand, and the convicted person has no constitutional right to have a DNA test done if and when new evidence becomes available. Before we execute someone wouldn’t we want to be absolutely sure we got it right?! A 2014 study by the National Academy of Science [ii] predicts that 1 in 25 people on death row are innocent. In other words, for every 100 people we execute, four (4) were innocent. Is that a statistic we can live with, especially in light of the Supreme Court ruling?
The DNA ruling is also important because in many of the cases in which men (almost all exonorees are men) are seeking to prove their innocence, the crime took place before the development of the sophisticated DNA analysis that is available today. Darryl Hunt’s case is an example of this. When Deborah Sykes was murdered and forensic evidence was collected, the most sophisticated analysis that could be conducted was blood type analysis. After DNA analysis became available, many exonorees, including Darryl, sought court orders to have the forensic evidence tested. DNA is one of the strongest tools that prosecutors and defendants have in identifying the actual perpetrator of the crime. Thus, the US Supreme Court ruling that denies post-conviction DNA testing is a clear statement by the highest court in the land that it is not concerned about ensuring a criminal justice system that works for all. The bodies of the incarcerated do not matter, and this is especially true for Black men.
As we were analyzing the data for this blog we were reminded that one of the hot spots for police brutality is the city of Chicago, Cook County, Illinois; [iii] Cook County is also the home to more exonerations—produced by wrongful convictions—than any other county in the United States. To put this into perspective, Cook County has 3 times the number of exonerations (96) compared to New York City (32), which has a population of 20 million, or nearly 10 times that of Cook County. This is policing Black bodies, locking up Black men, for decades, for crimes they didn’t commit, depriving them of not just their freedom but their opportunity to do the things that people do in their early twenties: start a career, start a family, build a life. These opportunities don’t exist for these men. They will never get these opportunities back. The overall context in which wrongful convictions take place are no different than the brew that produces riots, the shooting of unarmed Black men, mass incarceration and other mechanisms for policing Black bodies. Therefore, it should not be at all surprising that cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, which lead the country in locking up Black men and shooting unarmed Black men, cities that have weathered the destruction of riots, also lead the nation in wrongful convictions.
Thankfully, for a variety of reasons, they also lead the nation in exonerating those whose bodies they locked up, wrongfully, for decades.
[i] Garrett, Brandon L. 2008. “Judging Innocence.” Columbia Law Review 108:55-142.
[ii] Samuel R. Grossa, Barbara O’Brienb, Chen Huc, and Edward H. Kennedy. (2014) “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230.abstract