To most Americans, the scene is a familiar one: a person walks down the austere stone steps of a courthouse or through the gates of a prison, flanked by a team of triumphant attorneys, met by a scrum of reporters. These people have just been exonerated of crimes that they did not commit, crimes for which they have served many years (the average is 9, though many have served upwards of 30) in prison. Since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking them in 1989, and at the time of writing, there have been 2,271 known exonerations in the United States. Though the total number of exonerations will never come close to representing the total number of wrongful convictions, our collective knowledge has shifted from the perception that wrongful convictions are a shocking, yet rare blunder in the criminal justice system to the understanding that they happen far more frequently than previously assumed.
In recognition of the many thousands of wrongfully convicted people, today is Wrongful Conviction Day: a day to shine a light on the causes and remedies concerning wrongful convictions, an issue that devastates individuals, families and communities. The main underlying causes have come to be recognized by experts over the years: eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, invalid forensics, incentivized testimony, and government misconduct).
Understanding the main causes of wrongful convictions empowers us to act, and there is a litany of policy efforts that work to curb wrongful convictions. Georgia and Alabama have had some victories: in 2015, for example, the Georgia state legislature adopted a statute which requires that all law enforcement agencies implement scientifically-supported eyewitness identification protocols. Georgia’s evidence preservation statute meets the best practices standard. But quite a bit of work remains: Alabama has no state eyewitness identification reform policy. Neither Georgia or Alabama have a law requiring that interrogations be filmed. Georgia has no compensation law, and Alabama’s is far from perfect.
Though wrongful convictions are a global phenomenon, the challenges that GIP faces are unique. Georgia retains the dubious distinction of being the state with the greatest number of people under correctional control, with 1 in 13 Georgians either on parole, probation or incarcerated. Our incarceration rates are among the highest on the planet: if each US state were a world country, the incarcerations rates in Georgia and Alabama would take the 4th and 5th places, respectively.
In all aspects of the criminal justice system, race discrimination is pervasive. DNA exonerations reveal what many in society experience on a daily basis: that Black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. Despite comprising only 13% of the US population, the vast majority (62%) of DNA exonerees are Black.
Black murder exonerees wait 3 years longer in prison before release than whites; and a Black person convicted of sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. A shocking 88% of minors later exonerated by DNA testing are Black.
Also, these DNA exonerations we hear about so frequently are comparatively rare. Most DNA exonerations occur in rape and murder cases – due to the availability of biological evidence as well as the high-profile nature of the crimes, and corresponding severity of the sentences— yet rape and murders make up less than 2 percent of all felonies. While it has been an undeniably powerful tool in revealing the extent and causes of wrongful convictions, DNA is not a silver bullet. It reveals only the tip of the wrongful conviction iceberg. Further, here in Georgia, you have no constitutional right to release from prison, even if scientific evidence definitively proves you did not commit the crime. Several Georgia Innocence Project clients have been proven innocent by DNA testing, yet they remain behind bars today. Past a certain point, our legal system values finality over innocence and objective truth. When, as in Georgia, innocence is not enough to secure release from prison, a moral duty falls upon prosecutors to ensure that innocent people do not remain incarcerated. Prosecutors must work to uphold justice and integrity, not simply to uphold convictions.
So: just how widespread are the problems we are up against? Despite much research attempting to address the question, the actual rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is difficult to accurately quantify; experts believe that overall it is impossible to determine the real rate of error in the criminal justice system. This is true to a certain extent – exact numbers will never be ascertained, as the vast majority of wrongful convictions will never be recognized or overturned – but the estimates have become much more accurate with time, based on empirical data culled over the past decades. The general consensus today is that between 3 and 6 percent of people in prison are innocent.
3 to 6 percent. Given current prison populations, that means roughly 2,400 to 4,800 innocent men and women are imprisoned in Georgia and Alabama. The total exonerations from those two states? 61. We have our work cut out for us. We cannot do it alone. Join us! #WrongfulConvictionDay