A basic objective of a criminal justice system rooted in rule of law is fair determination of guilt or innocence of defendants at trial. Despite this ideal, it is safe to say that every system in the world has issued incorrect convictions, with innocent people sent to prison and, in some instances, to their deaths for crimes they did not commit. When the system fails the first time, exonerations—however rare and belated—serve to clear the name of individuals who should never have been convicted in the first place.

Tales of exoneration are an unsettling reminder of the imperfections of the American criminal justice system. In a recent case, Cornelius Dupree Jr. of Texas was declared innocent in early January after spending 30 years in prison for a 1979 rape and robbery, for which he was sentenced to 75 years. Dupree had prior chances to make parole and be set free—if only he would admit he was a sex offender—but instead maintained his innocence. He was released in July 2010, and DNA test results a week later proved he had not committed the sexual assault.

It’s in the DNA

Only two other American prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence have been in prison longer than Dupree, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center specializing in challenging wrongful convictions through the use of DNA. Among a few other groups and researchers, the center—which represented Dupree—also tracks exonerations, thus filling an important role; the US government does not release official statistics on exonerations as part of the extensive crime data it makes public.

Access to scientifically reliable DNA evidence has been crucial for overturning convictions like Dupree’s, though experts estimate that DNA testing is possible in less than 10 percent of all cases. The first DNA exoneration took place in the United States in 1989, and to date there have been 267 such exonerations in 34 states and Washington, DC. Virtually all of these have benefited state prisoners, about one in six of whom are from Texas, which has retained forensic evidence longer compared to other states and provides a streamlined route for defendants to request DNA testing. Convicts subsequently exonerated through DNA analysis are typically imprisoned quite young—at age 27, on average—and served an average of 13 years behind bars.

If exoneration is ethically and legally proper, then compensating someone who has been unjustly locked up seems deserved. But to date, only about half of American inmates exonerated by DNA testing have received financial compensation. To remedy this, the US Congress, more than half of all states, and the District of Columbia have now passed compensation laws. While awarding ex-prisoners wildly divergent amounts, states are gradually adopting statutes for mandating and standardizing compensation.

Procedural Problems, Suggested Reforms

False convictions tend to be chalked up to a “tough on crime” mentality, shoddy investigative techniques, and the desensitized nature of some police officers and prosecutors. Findings published in the book Actual Innocence show that in 64 examined cases of DNA exoneration mistaken identification by a victim or witness—the most common element of unjust convictions—was present in 84 percent of cases. Innocent people were also found guilty due to police and prosecutorial misconduct, inept defense counsel, tainted or fraudulent scientific evidence, manipulated or fabricated confessions, and lying by prison snitches.

The approach of using DNA has had a huge impact, both challenging long-held assumptions about determining guilt and innocence and motivating calls for changes that would better protect criminal suspects. Some suggested reforms include improving police lineup procedures, curbing abusive interrogation, restricting prosecutorial reliance on the testimony of snitches, making government crime laboratories independent from police departments, and improving the funding and quality of criminal defense representation.

Overturning Death Penalty Convictions

The topic of exonerations involving capital punishment incites intense controversy. Even Supreme Court justices have debated the plausibility that an innocent person has been put to death in the United States, and the first declaration by a court of a wrongful execution has been sought, even anticipated, for years. The case now attracting the most attention is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 and whose potential post-execution exoneration would doubtless prompt greater vigilance in criminal justice procedures.

As of October 2010, 138 individuals in 26 states since 1973 have been freed from death row after being incarcerated an average of nearly 10 years, and analysis by the Innocence Project casts grave doubts on whether the death penalty is reliably imposed. Since 1989, 17 people on death row have had their convictions overturned by DNA testing alone. More broadly, between 1977 and 1999, 80 Americans sentenced to death were later released when proven innocent (through either DNA testing or other methods), while 553 were executed. The ratio in the state of Illinois over the same period was much more alarming: 12 inmates were executed while 13 death row prisoners were exonerated.

Exonerations in China

Exonerations in China, as far as they have been reported, have often emerged differently from those in the United States, with limited recourse for attorneys to re-open cases, DNA evidence sparingly used, and barriers to a fair trial frequently in place. The most well-known overturned convictions, often in murder cases, consist of egregious acts of investigative malfeasance and subsequent examination of irrefutable evidence of a prisoner’s innocence. China has seen two “murder victims” turn up alive in recent years, allowing their convicted “assailants,” She Xianglin and Zhao Zuohai, to be exonerated and freed. The stories of others like Zhuo Fakun follow a familiar trajectory: get convicted of murder, receive a death sentence, and be let out of prison when evidence overwhelmingly supports innocence. These wrongful convictions were all prefaced by confessions extracted by torture, which Chinese legal experts admit is widespread.

Attorneys for defendants regularly confront obstacles in arguing cases and appealing verdicts in China, making it challenging to pose a strong (and fairly considered) case for innocence, much less prove innocence for prisoners in a retrial when exoneration is the goal. Even worse, authorities committed to upholding social stability may lack incentive to protect a suspect’s rights for crimes that are severely punished, like violent or political offenses.

In response to issues that can lead to case mishandling and wrongful convictions, the Ministry of Public Security has initiated past campaigns urging police to gain basic investigative skills and use more high-tech tools, such as DNA testing. Also, concerns about misuse of capital punishment in part led to the Supreme People’s Court resuming authority, in 2007, over all executions in the country. And in 2010, Chinese bodies issued rules barring the use in trial of confessions that had been obtained through torture or other illegal means. It is quite hard (and too early) to assess if any of these efforts can help curtail wrongful convictions or the execution of innocent people and it is equally uncertain whether they will facilitate exoneration if and when a prisoner’s guilt ever comes into question.

Exoneration Efforts Face Challenges

Rather than viewing exonerations as largely positive corrective acts, the reality is more sobering: most wrongful convictions will never be challenged, and few cases that attorneys take up again result in exonerations, often due to issues that plagued the original defense. There’s certainly no way of knowing with any accuracy how many unjust verdicts are issued. Depending on one’s philosophy, small data sets about exonerations can either show serious failings of justice—when a few hundred wrongful convictions among millions of cases is seen as too many—or admirable success to those who accept that systemic imperfections are inevitable.

Trying to overturn a conviction can be unpopular, as when cases with emotional testimonies are re-opened, and in a struggling economy, it can even be considered too expensive. “Innocence projects” funded by some US states may barely stay afloat under the threat of budget cuts. Despite these challenges, work on exonerations is inspiring wider discussion and more activism. And in the United States, exonerations are on the rise, underscoring the idea that presenting proof in an attempt to overturn an incorrect verdict reflects a system’s maturity as much as its flaws, as justice delivered late is preferred to none coming at all.

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