The Innocence Commission

According to the official website of The Innocence Project, a national litigation and policy organization devoted to the reformation of the American criminal justice system and the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted, the current total of post-conviction DNA exonerations is 218. Sheck and Neufeld (2002) assert that in light of 110 post-conviction DNA exonerations within ten years leading up to September of 2002, there is an alarming concern that needs to be raised regarding wrongful convictions within the American justice system.

As such, it is not enough to merely exonerate the wrongfully convicted but to give meticulous attention to the possible areas of weakness within the justice system that have permitted such wrongful convictions in the first place. It is impossible to blithely subscribe to the notion that the justice system still works, but it is not productive to rail against injustices post hoc either. Instead, what is needed is strategies that can help address these wrongs in the first place, so as to reduce if not eliminate future wrongful convictions.

According to The Innocence Project, the number one cause of wrongful conviction, as determined by the first 130 exonerations was false or mistaken identification of the convicted. Social scientists have determined that eyewitness identification is not reliable – memory is not a photograph, which preserves images in an unalterable state, but is given to bias of recollection, and can be confounded by information provided with malicious intent or otherwise. In the case of Dennis Maher, an Army sergeant from Lowell, Massachusetts who was convicted of rape and sexual assault charges in 1983.

It was not until 2001 that evidence from the case was made available for DNA testing which cleared Maher of the charges and found him a free man after twenty years of maintaining his innocence while in prison. His conviction was based on testimonial descriptions of the rapist having worn clothes similar to those worn by the rapist, as well as being in possession of a knife. However, despite any lack of biological evidence linking him to the charges, the prosecution won its case on eyewitness testimony. In other cases, wrongful convictions have occurred due to a misunderstanding of the limits of science.

Herman Atkins, who was convicted of robbery, oral and genital rape, was linked to the crime on the basis of a criminalist who asserted that Atkins was part of the same genetic demographic of the perpetrator, based on semen obtained from the victim’s sweater. As such, he was convicted even though it could not be proven that he was inarguably the rapist, something the prosecution admitted by saying the evidence “excludes a large percentage of the people, and does not exclude him, and that’s corroboration. “