Why Some States Still Fight the Exoneration of the Innocent

Record numbers of wrongful convictions were overturned across the nation last year. But in some places, the trend seems to moving in the opposite direction.
Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters 

The National Registry of Exonerations announced Tuesday that 2013 was a "record year" for exonerations in the United States. The group's investigators and researchers found that at least 87 men and women had the charges against them cleared, their convictions overturned, in 25 states around the country.  Black or white, male or female, Northern or Southern, many of these people were freed from prison in 2013 after serving decades in prison for crimes we now know beyond a reasonable doubt that they did not commit.

Each of these exonerations represents a tiny point of light in the darkness of the nation's criminal justice systems, which remain racially biased and, in countless other ways, arbitrary and capricious. The miracle here isn't just that 87 people last year were able to enjoy a new level of truth and justice. The miracle is that despite our grand pronouncements about equal justice under a rule of law there are so many more innocent people behind bars today who are yet to be exonerated.

There are a number of interesting revelations in the new report. For example, DNA exonerations declined last year and represent only about a fifth of the total. Fifteen of the 87 exonerations occurred after false guilty pleas, another sign of how prevalent coerced confessions can be. There were 40 murder exonerations in 2013 and 18 involving convictions for rape or other sexual assault. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is how optimistic the authors seem to be about growing cooperation from prosecutors and judges. From the report:

The pattern of exonerations in 2013 suggests that we are increasingly willing to consider and act on the types of innocence claims that are often ignored: those without biological evidence or with no actual perpetrator; cases with comparatively light sentences; judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who accepted plea bargains to avoid the risk of extreme punishment after trial. The recent increase in the number of exonerations initiated by law enforcement directly shows that police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction.

Maybe yes and may be no. I write about plenty of cases where actual innocence is an issue but where the intransigence of the courts, or of prosecutors, is remarkable. For example, I'm now into my third year covering the case of Tyrone Noling in Ohio. He deserves to have critical DNA evidence tested to determine whether another man committed the murder for which he now sits on death row. Had Ohio officials agreed to this two years ago, we'd all know the truth by now. The case would be closed. Instead, at great cost to taxpayers, those officials have balked. This year I'll be covering another hearing, at least.

You can say the same thing about Alabama, which won't permit DNA testing in the death penalty case of Thomas Arthur even though his attorneys say they will pay for it and even though another man confessed under oath to the murder for which Arthur was convicted and sentenced to death. You can say that same thing about Mississippi, which won't permit DNA testing in the death penalty case of Willie Manning even though the FBI—the FBI!—has offered to do the testing amid questions about the reliability of the scientific evidence introduced at his long ago trial.  

And you sure can say the same thing about Texas. In some ways, state officials have done a laudable job recently of trying to rectify past injustices. Texas leads the 2013 list with 13 exonerations. On the other hand, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, on Wednesday, inexplicably refused to permit DNA testing in the case of a death row inmate named Larry Swearingen. The rationale the court applied was almost cruel: There could be no testing because Swearingen had not proven there was "biological evidence" to test. Of course, such testing would have put that question to rest, one way or the other. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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