Developments in science are helping to advance the protection of the innocent in America's courts and to overturn convictions that were wrongfully obtained. Thanks to advances in DNA technology, those who have been mistakenly convicted in the past can sometimes be exonerated and set free through the presentation of DNA evidence. Since 1989, post-conviction exoneration has been achieved in 208 cases, 145 having occurred after 2000. This technological leap has greatly assisted our ability to pursue justice and protect the innocent.
Seventy-seven percent of the 208 wrongful convictions were the result of misidentification by witnesses. As a trial lawyer, I can attest that eyewitness observations are often fraught with error. The stress of exigent circumstances, the vantage point of one's view, difficulties with seeing or hearing, and the power of suggestion can adversely influence one's perception and memory of observed events. Sadly, these flawed observations sometimes lead to wrongful convictions. Thankfully, however, some of those who were wrongly condemned now have hope through post-conviction access to DNA evidence. Forty-two states currently give prisoners access to DNA evidence in some form, in order to further their ability to defend themselves against wrongful convictions.
This new technology doesn't just protect the innocent—it can also help to determine the guilty. Out of the 208 exonerations mentioned above, suspects or the true perpetrators have been identified in 77 cases.
DNA technology is helping to further the cause of justice by correcting occasional failings due to human perception, memory or manipulation. The men who have been exonerated had already spent, on average, 12 years in prison—a sobering statistic to anyone concerned with fashioning a just society.
All jurisdictions should embrace these scientific advances and incorporate them into their justice systems. While the possibility of a wrongful conviction can never be eliminated in its entirety, we must never cease in our quest to protect the innocent, even while convicting the guilty. A society cannot fairly call itself "just" unless it is vigilant to prevent and correct miscarriages of justice.
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