Twenty-Five Years of Freeing the Innocent
To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the first wrongful conviction to be overturned based on DNA testing, Northeastern University School of Law Professor Daniel Medwed penned an op-ed about the landmark dismissal that continues to have an impact on the criminal justice system today.
The op-ed, which appears on the WBUR website, Boston’s NPR station, notes that since Gary Dotson’s rape conviction was vacated in 1989, 316 additional people have been exonerated by DNA. While those exonerations shed light on contributing factors to wrongful convictions and give way to fixes that can prevent them, people continue to be wrongly convicted. Medwed writes:
Beyond DNA exonerations, there is the issue of wrongful convictions that cannot be overturned with DNA testing. Biological evidence such as blood, saliva, skin cells and semen is found in only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of criminal cases. What’s more, this evidence is occasionally lost, destroyed or degraded.
Even when biological evidence is available, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are not always forthcoming in disclosing it to the defense. Add to this the hurdle of testing the evidence in compliance with legal requirements, and the challenge of proving a wrongful conviction using DNA technology is even greater.
For this reason, DNA testing has not and cannot solve the problem of wrongful convictions.? The same factors that led to the initial miscarriages of justice in the DNA exonerations appear in cases without any available biological evidence. Absent the authority of science, it is exceedingly difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction in these so-called non-DNA cases. Attorneys litigating them must often rely on subjective evidence of innocence. In doing so, they tend to encounter strict time limits, cumbersome burdens of proof and the pervasive skepticism of prosecutors and judges.
It may be fair to say that the Dotson exoneration a quarter century ago helped launch a revolution in criminal law: a legal, political and social campaign to rectify injustices that some have labeled a civil rights movement for this century. This revolution is far from over.
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