The United States Justice system exonerated more than 3,000 inmates since 1989. However, most wrongfully convicted prisoners will never get their day in court, according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations.
What does this data reveal about the future of exonerations?
Where you live matters
Prisoners who live in Illinois, New York, Texas, Michigan or California are more likely to get their cases heard than in other states. Population plays a role because these large states have more financial resources to use for re-examining cases. Unique properties of their justice systems also factor in. For example, Chicago law enforcement has a track record of coerced false confessions that could lead to exonerations.
DNA only plays a role in a small number of exonerations
The public tends to believe that DNA evidence is the primary driver of exonerations. However, DNA played a role in only 18% of the exonerations tracked by the registry. Perjury and false accusations played a role in 61% of exonerated cases. Other top contributors include:
- Government misconduct
- Misleading or false forensic evidence
- Mistaken identifications by witnesses
- False confessions
The reasons these factors commonly lead to false convictions vary. Some are merely mistakes, while others result from misleading and suggestive police procedures. A lack of law enforcement resources and determination to achieve a conviction, even when the evidence does not support it, can also play a role.
While the reasons innocent people go to prison vary, the registry data makes it clear that avoiding a guilty conviction is vitally important because the odds are against you once you receive a conviction.