Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Sixty years ago this month, Francis Crick and James Watson published an article in Nature magazine. As you might know, it turned out to be sort of a big deal.
The continuing efforts of innocence projects working to free those wrongfully imprisoned are vital -- not just because they return lives to people who deserve them, but also because they reveal some devastating flaws in our criminal justice system. So in the spirit of commemorating 300 innocents released from prison, and the discovery of the genetic molecule itself, here are five things you should know about DNA-based exonerations.
1. The number one reason DNA exonerees were convicted was flawed eyewitness testimony.
Psychologists have published papers upon papers on how terribly unreliable eyewitness evidence can be. Law enforcement, for its part, has blithely ignored the research.
Now, after over two decades of DNA exonerations, the enough empirical evidence has been collected to hit the point home: Seventy-six percent of DNA exonerees were initially convicted due to faulty eyewitness testimony. And wouldn't you know it, not much has changed.
Some states, to be fair, have instituted some reforms to improve the efficacy of eyewitness testimony -- for example, through improved officer training on how to properly interview witnesses, and more effective lineup identification methods (changes in small variables, like lighting and the order of suspects, make worlds of difference). Most, however, are obstinate.
Still, at least these are honest errors, right? Thank goodness people aren't being wrongly convicted because of fraud and abuse.
2. People are being wrongly convicted because of fraud and abuse.
A quarter of all exonerees were inculpated because of abuse or misconduct by police officers, resulting in a false confession.
Much like in the case of eyewitness testimony, some state-level reforms have been instituted to prevent false confessions from occurring. One simple measure has been to record interviews with suspects -- a little bit of transparency that goes a long way. However, much like in the case of eyewitness testimony, that reform has not been broadly implemented.
In fact, the biggest wrongdoer on the false-confession beat remains a holdout. The FBI's sorry record on false confessions goes largely ignored, and the agency still maintains that recording interviews would weaken an agent's ability to gather information.
What's truly scary about false confessions is that those who are innocent may be more likely to fall victim. A 2004 Harvard study showed that innocent suspects often waive their Miranda Rights; they think that their non-guilt will naturally exculpate them, and that forgoing an attorney will demonstrate their innocence. Unfortunately, waiving those rights leave them more susceptible to coercive police tactics.
3. If you're wrongly convicted, appellate courts won't help you.
Brandon Garrett's book "Convicting the Innocent" parses the case histories of the first 250 people exculpated by DNA tests, and the conclusions he reaches about the courts system are grim -- especially regarding the handling of the post-conviction trial process.
For convicts who filed for appeal or contested their ruling before getting DNA test results, there was a 14 percent reversal rate. That's identical to the reversal rate for rape and murder cases in general.
Garrett has two things to say about this "universal" reversal rate: 1) Appellate courts may not reverse rulings because innocence is established -- they do it because of procedural error, which happens at high rates in any given rape or murder case. 2) Some judges do reverse decisions based on detected innocence, and the fact that they do it at a universal rate -- even in a sample of 100% innocent convicts -- implies both a failure of judicial ability to perceive innocence, and that there are oodles of innocent men out there who will never be exonerated.
As if that weren't depressing enough, convicts struggle to be released even after DNA testing -- which is unbelievably difficult to attain in the first place. Twelve convicts in Garrett's sample were not granted relief by appellate courts even after preliminary DNA evidence established innocence. Forty-one convicts were only freed after an executive pardon, because there was no judicial forum for relief.
4. DNA exoneration publicity has been misused and abused by men's rights advocates.
The value of DNA exoneration and the good that it does cannot be understated. But sadly, certain people have transmuted the work of innocence projects into a tool for an ugly cause. Namely, men's rights advocates, misogynists, and people who in general just don't know any better perceive DNA exoneration as proof that false rape accusations are more of a thing than they really are.
"153 of the 268 exonerations in the Innocence Project were for rape," inaccurately reports human-stupidity.com, a men's rights website. "This confirms the false rape society suspicion, that people can easily be locked up for rape accusations, and that due process is violated especially in rape cases." (This website is downright charming, really; consider this gem on statutory rape: "Am I supposed to request age identification from every full-bodied young woman who comes onto me?")
Most men's rights organizations have pegged the rate of false rape accusations at 40-50 percent, and for them DNA exonerees are living proof that their numbers are correct--and consequently, that feminists are the worst.
We don't really know the real rates of false rape accusations, but it's certain that they are, thankfully, low. The rate of false rape reports -- when someone lies about being raped without pressing charges, as explained here -- is between 2-8 percent. The rate of false accusations -- where charges are pressed -- is much, much lower.
False rape accusations happen, and DNA exonerees are proof that the consequences of that are terrible. But when men's rights groups use those cases to help exaggerate the frequency of false accusations, a rape culture is created, where reports of actual sexual violence are belittled, and rape is tacitly permitted to happen.
5. Your state could likely do a lot more to streamline the process of DNA exoneration, and help freed innocents get their lives back together.
This interactive map, courtesy of the Innocence Project, will fill you in. Sadly, one state -- I'm looking at you, Oklahoma -- still lacks any DNA access whatsoever for innocent convicts. And, as this recent New York Times article elucidates, given the dearth of restitutions for DNA exonerees, life is exorbitantly tough for freed innocents.
One last thing: If you're looking for some great reading on DNA exoneration, check out this Propublica article on The Best Reporting on Wrongful Convictions, that links to some phenomenal journalism. I particularly recommend The Innocent Man, from the Texas Monthly.
Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.