As recently as 20 years ago, it was extraordinarily rare for a convicted prisoner to establish his or her innocence conclusively enough to get public attention. That changed with breakthroughs in DNA science.
The 205th DNA exoneration since 1989 was recorded earlier this month by the Innocence Project, a group of crack defense lawyers who have made such cases their mission. The exonerated prisoners—including 15 who had been sentenced to death—have been found innocent by courts, prosecutors, or governors based on post-conviction DNA testing.
But America has been too slow to appreciate that the DNA exonerations, and other evidence, suggest that many thousands of other wrongly convicted people are rotting in prisons and jails around the country. And our federal, state, and local governments and courts have done far too little to adopt proposed criminal justice reforms that could reduce the number of innocent people convicted while nailing more of the real criminals.
The case of the most recent DNA exonoree, Byron Halsey, was typical: Based on a confession full of obviously false details, extracted by high-pressure interrogation, he spent 19 years in prison in New Jersey for two heinous child murders committed by another man in 1985. Halsey was able to prove his innocence only after a 2002 New Jersey law forced reluctant prosecutors to give his counsel access to DNA evidence. In Halsey’s and some 70 other DNA-exoneration cases, DNA also helped to establish the guilt of the real perpetrators. All or almost all had committed other violent crimes before being caught.