Why have there been so many recent overturned convictions and exonerations?

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Answered by: G. Katie, An Expert in the Death Sentence Category
Every week, overturned convictions and exonerations make national headlines. What is going on? Why are so many people serving decades in prison for crimes they did not commit? The answer is DNA, or rather, the lack thereof. Twenty years ago, crime labs did not have the capabilities they do today – DNA was not yet understood or widely used; hair samples were relied upon more often than not, many times in conjunction with eye witness testimony.

The problem with hair samples is that they are largely generic in what they reveal about a person. If you were to pluck one of my hairs, a lab could determine: that I am female, not overly-young or overly-old, white, perhaps what medications I take, and what brand of hair products I use. They may also be able to determine if I smoke. (I don’t). This may sound fairly descriptive, but there could be hundreds of women similar to me in my general area; any number of us who could have committed the crime in question.

Now, what if I were a young, black man in an urban, low socio-economic area, surrounded by thousands of other men of similar description? One of these men perpetrates a crime, and a few hairs are found at the scene. A lab could run the hairs and find that it was a young, black, male who committed said crime. Lo and behold, a middle-age white lady confirms with investigators that she saw a young, black, man in the area at the appropriate time frame, and the next young, black, man who walks by, (or is presented to the eyewitness in an overly coercive line-up), is fingered for the crime.

Unfortunately, research has shown that many people find it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between facial features of any race other than their own. At trial, the star eyewitness points to the innocent defendant and claims, fully believing it to be true, that he was “the one.” A lab technician steps up and tells the jury that a young, black, male who smokes and uses Suave shampoo (as does the defendant), left hair at the crime scene, and, whammy! A fast conviction and 20 years to life – meanwhile the real perpetrator walks free, smoking and smelling like Suave.

Today, those same hair samples may actually be of more use than they were all those years ago. If the hair follicle, or bulb, is still attached to the hair, there may be DNA inside to analyze. If our guy above is lucky enough to convince someone to reopen his case, and there is DNA available, it can be “unmatched,” to his DNA, and he would be released. No two people in the world have the same DNA; it is indisputable, scientific, evidence. The only caveat is in extremely rare scientific abnormalities, such as with a chimera: a person born with two sets of DNA, their own, and their twin’s.

Often, in the case of overturned convictions and exonerations, not only are misinterpreted, (or over-applied), hair samples falsely presented as hard evidence, but faulty eye witness accounts were found at the heart of a wrongful conviction. The Innocence Project reports that 75% of known, wrongful convictions were based on faulty eyewitness testimony. Sadly, studies have shown over and over again that humans simply don’t remember as well as they think they do – even the clearest memories are highly fallible.

False confessions, and false testimony from informants, are also cited by The Innocence Project as contributors in many wrongful convictions. Happily, advances in technology have recently allowed many innocent people to finally return home, (albeit to a strange new world), yet we are only just beginning to discover exactly how many people have been incarcerated, or even put to death, for crimes they did not commit.

Works Cited

“Eyewitness Misidentification.” Innocence Project. innocenceproject.org. 2015. Web. 27 April 2015.

“The Causes of Wrongful Conviction.” Innocence Project. innocenceproject.org. 2015. Web. 27 April 2015.

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