Shelf Life

Incarcerating the Innocent

An excerpt from Lara Bazelon’s examination of wrongful imprisonment

By Katie Daniels | November 27, 2018

“I went to law school because I wanted to be a very specific kind of lawyer,” writes Lara Bazelon, an associate professor of law at the University of San Francisco. Yet even after a successful career as a public defender, representing clients who would otherwise be unable to afford a good attorney, she began to sense the limitations of the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to the conviction of innocent people. In her new book, Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction, Bazelon notes that an estimated 15,300 innocent people are currently imprisoned in the United States, and examines what effect wrongful convictions have on both the victims and the accused. In the excerpt below, Bazelon highlights a few of the many obstacles to exoneration such prisoners can face—and the network of nonprofit groups working to bring justice to the wrongfully accused.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a small, nonprofit research project founded in 2012 by University of Michigan Law School professor Samuel Gross and Rob Warden, then the executive director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. What the project lacks in manpower it makes up in zeal, documenting every known exoneration dating back to 1989, the first year that DNA exonerations were recorded in the United States. Two staff members—Klara Stephens and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Maurice Possley—collect detailed information about each case from court documents and news reports, provide a comprehensive narrative about the case, and break down the data into numerous categories, including gender, race, geography, crime of conviction, factors that contributed to the wrongful conviction, and whether the case involved DNA. The registry’s website provides detailed graphs that set out the cause or causes of the wrongful convictions and chart their frequency over time.

On March 7, 2017, the registry released a report summarizing the data it had documented since its founding: 1,994 exonerations. (The number is now above 2,100.) Seventy-eight percent of the exonerations did not involve DNA evidence. This finding surprises many people, as it seems at odds with the way that crime is prosecuted on popular television shows and in movies, where the perpetrator inevitably leaves behind a tiny but undeniable bit of himself. Skin follicles are collected from under the victim’s fingernails, blood or semen is retrieved from a stain, a trace of saliva is lifted from a soda can or cigarette butt. In fictionalized accounts, diligent detectives and technicians rapidly collect and analyze this trace DNA evidence. More often than not, when the episode concludes, the bad guy has been conclusively identified, apprehended, and locked away.

The reality is much messier and more complicated. Even when DNA exists, backlogs and bureaucracy mean that it can take months, if not years, to test. Crime labs also come to erroneous conclusions, often because the technicians are incompetent, overwhelmed, or even corrupt. In 2010, at a San Francisco crime laboratory, a technician stole some of the cocaine she was supposed to be testing, resulting in a scandal that led to the dismissal of seventeen hundred pending criminal cases. Five years later, in the same laboratory, two other bad apples—a technician and her immediate supervisor—were discovered to have committed misconduct so serious it required the San Francisco district attorney’s office to review fourteen hundred criminal cases. Both employees had failed DNA proficiency testing examinations administered by a national crime lab accrediting agency a year earlier, but had kept their jobs. At least one found conclusive DNA matches where none existed.

San Francisco is just one example. Similar and worse corruption has been exposed in Massachusetts. In April 2017, state authorities overturned twenty thousand convictions after a crime lab technician was caught falsifying test results; in November of the same year, another six thousand convictions were thrown out when it was discovered that a lab technician in a different laboratory was on drugs when she performed the testing.

But most crucial, and most fundamentally misunderstood, is the fact that there is no DNA to test in the vast majority of criminal cases. What this means is that even if DNA evidence is competently collected and properly tested in every case where it exists, it will do little to stem the rising tide of false convictions.

And it is a tide—a rising one. In 2014, a record-setting 147 people were exonerated. That record was broken in 2015, when 160 people were freed. It was broken again in 2016, when the number rose to 168, an average of more than three people per week. In a 2017 report, the National Registry of Exonerations came to this sobering conclusion: “Exonerations used to be unusual; now they are commonplace.” Yet, “the record numbers of exonerations we have seen in recent years have not made a dent in the number of innocent defendants who have been convicted and punished.”


Excerpted from Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction by Lara Bazelon. Copyright 2018. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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