In our quest for justice, how do we work to eliminate wrongful convictions? What has history taught us? What role has forensic DNA played since its emergence? In the upcoming six-part Innocence After Guilt video series we delve into the role of DNA testing in the United States in post-conviction work to exonerate the innocent and reassert convictions of the guilty.
Ted Bundy, one of America’s deadliest serial killers, was executed in Florida in 1989.
That same year, Gary Dotson was the first person to be exonerated using DNA evidence after serving 10 years for an aggravated kidnapping and rape that he did not commit. DNA evidence was an emerging technology at the time, and this was the case that arguably broadcast the dawn of the forensic DNA era to the larger public.
It was during this period that support for the death penalty waned as more Americans recognized its irreversibility within a justice system that was not infallible.
Four years later, when former Marine Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death at 22 and then subsequently exonerated nine years later in large part due to DNA evidence, the concern regarding wrongful convictions, particularly those based on eyewitness testimony with little or no physical evidence, gained additional traction.
Expecting any human-led system to be perfect is unreasonable. Yet the likely numbers of innocent individuals serving years for crimes they didn’t commit is staggering. If only 1% of the almost 2,000,000 incarcerated prisoners (as of March 2023) were truly innocent, then approximately 20,000 innocent people are serving unjust sentences. Additionally, for every innocent incarcerated individual there is a guilty party responsible for these crimes who remains free to offend again. And, quite poignantly, when it comes to the death penalty there is simply no going back. A profoundly troubling thought when at least 190 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C.
A Movement Emerges
In 1992, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld realized that if DNA technology was able to assist in identifying those who had committed crimes, then the reverse was also true: DNA technology could be valuable when making a case for innocence. This led the duo to found the Innocence Project, which operates as a law clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Since its inception, a network of organizations have joined the innocence movement, with member organizations in all 50 states and in numerous countries around the world. All told, there have been 3,293 exonerations since 1989, accounting for more than 29,000 years of freedom lost.
In the Innocence After Guilt series, we examine post-conviction DNA testing to learn more about the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, the years-long process of re-examining a case, the people involved and the roles that they play, and the key learnings that will hopefully lead to fewer wrongful convictions in the future.
Be Sure to subscribe to our youtube channel to watch the first episode launching in june 2023.