DNA Exonerations in the United States (1989 – 2020)

Please note: The Innocence Project used to track all DNA exonerations nationwide (cases in which post-conviction DNA testing was central to exoneration, both our cases and other people’s) but for a variety of reasons, after reaching 375 DNA exonerations nationwide in 2020, we pivoted to tracking all “IP successes” (meaning DNA exonerations, exonerations based on other evidence, and other victories such as post-conviction Alford pleas) and only “IP successes” (meaning no cases that we didn’t do substantial work on). Accordingly, the IP website includes this static page summarizing the first 375 DNA exonerations nationwide and a dynamic page summarizing the number of IP victories to date (which we update quarterly). For the latest numbers, explore here.

Fast facts:

  • 1989: The first DNA exoneration took place
  • 375 DNA exonerees to date
  • 37: States where exonerations have been won
  • 14: Average number of years served
  • 5,284: Total number of years served
  • 26.6: Average age at the time of wrongful conviction
  • 43: Average age at exoneration
  • 21 of 375 people served time on death row
  • 44 of 375 pled guilty to crimes they did not commit
  • 69%: Involved eyewitness misidentification and of these:
    • 34% of these misidentification cases involved an in-person lineup
    • 52% involved a misidentification from a photo array
    • 7% involved a misidentification from a mugshot book
    • 16% involved a misidentification from a show-up procedure
    • 5% involved a misidentification from a one-on-one photo procedure
    • 27% involved a misidentification through the use of a composite sketch
    • 11% involved a voice misidentification
    • 2% involved a misidentification through hypnosis
    • 54% involved an in-court misidentification
    • 29% involved a misidentification through some other procedure (e.g., mistakenly “recognizing” someone on the street and reporting them to law enforcement)
    • 77% of the misidentification cases involved multiple procedures
    • 84% of the misidentification cases involved a misidentification by a surviving victim
    • 42% involved a cross-racial misidentification
    • 32% involved multiple misidentifications of the same person by different witnesses
    • 18% involved a failure to identify the exoneree in at least one procedure
  • 43%: Involved misapplication of forensic science
  • 29%: Involved false confessions
    • 49% of the false confessors were 21 years old or younger at the time of arrest
    • 31% of the false confessors were 18 years old or younger at the time of arrest
    • 9% of the false confessors had mental health or mental capacity issues, known at trial
  • 17%: Involved informants
  • 268: DNA exonerees compensated
  • 190: DNA exonerations worked on by the Innocence Project
  • 165: Actual assailants identified. Those actual perpetrators went on to be convicted of 154 additional violent crimes, including 83 sexual assaults, 36 murders, and 35 other violent crimes while the innocent sat behind bars for their earlier offenses.

Demographics of the 375:

225 (60%) African American
117 (31%) Caucasian
29 (8%) Latinx
2 (1%) Asian American
1 (<1%) Native American
1 (<1%) Self-identified “Other”

Other facts:

  • 130 DNA exonerees were wrongfully convicted for murders; 40 (31%) of these cases involved eyewitness misidentifications and 81 (62%) involved false confessions [as of July 9, 2018]
  • 102 DNA exonerations involved false confessions; the real perp was identified in 76 (75%) of these cases. These 38 real perps went on to commit 48 additional crimes for which they were convicted, including 25 murders, 14 rapes, and 9 other violent crimes [as of July 24, 2018]
  • 180 of the DNA exonerees (50%) had the real perpetrator(s) identified in their cases [as of August 22, 2018]
  • 137 of the DNA exonerees had the real perpetrator(s) identified through a cold database hit [as of October 19, 2018]
  • At least 43 (52%) of the 83 DNA exonerees who falsely confessed included non-public facts in their confessions [as of July 29, 2020]
  • 23 (22%) of the 104 people whose cases involved false confessions had exculpatory DNA evidence available at the time of trial but were still wrongfully convicted [as of July 29, 2020]
  • 83 (61%) of the 137 DNA exonerees who were wrongfully convicted for murder had false confessions involved in their cases (33 confessed themselves, 20 had co-defendants who confessed, and another 30 confessed themselves and had co-defendants who confessed) [as of July 29, 2020]

How DNA makes a difference in the criminal justice system

  • Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused.
  • In more than 25% of cases in a National Institute of Justice study, suspects were excluded once DNA testing was conducted during the criminal investigation (the study, conducted in 1995, included 10,060 cases where testing was performed by FBI labs).
  • An Innocence Project review of our closed cases from 2004 – June 2015 revealed that 29% of cases were closed because of lost or destroyed evidence.

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