Scrolling through the profiles of the 891 human beings listed on the National Registry of Exonerations, one cannot help wondering how many names are missing because innocent individuals have been executed by the state for crimes they did not commit. The people whose names are on that list are the lucky ones , even if “lucky’ means spending years, even decades behind bars until someone finally believed in your innocence and proved it, through a various methods.
Viewers of crime shows are aware that DNA evidence has played a major role in freeing men and women from prison. But unlike television script-writing, in real life, people are not usually proclaimed innocent in less than sixty minutes. Rea- time scientific tests can take weeks or months to make a solid determination of what the evidence proves, or does not. That is, if one can get the court to reopen one’s case to test a DNA sample.
The Innocence Project, perhaps the most famous organization dedicated to proving innocence through DNA testing, has its own list of exonerations—289 people, 17 of who were awaiting execution on death row. But there are other factors that can prove innocence, and the National Registry of Exonerations includes those reasons in every profile.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. The Innocence Project calls the Registry “the most comprehensive accounting of exonerations ever compiled.” And, for some, it may be the most eye-opening one because it sheds light on the ugly side of the criminal justice system, a side that may have been responsible for the execution of untold numbers of innocent people, and is certainly responsible for the incarceration of every person on the Registry list.
The ugly side is false witnesses, or “official misconduct,” coupled with false accusations and perjury. Add to that, mistaken identification by a witness, tainted forensic evidence, inadequate legal defense, and even false confessions, and one might wonder how many more human beings beside the 891 on the list might be executed, serve substantial time behind bars, and suffer the collateral consequences of being convicted for a crime they did not commit.
The publication of the National Registry of Exonerations is sure to spark a heated debate against the death penalty in states that have not yet abolished it. But there is also another aspect of what the list conveys—while the exonerated languished behind bars, the real perpetrators have gotten away, sometimes with murder.