Last updated

Exoneration occurs when the conviction for a crime is reversed, either through demonstration of innocence, a flaw in the conviction, or otherwise. Attempts to exonerate convicts are particularly controversial in death penalty cases, especially where new evidence is put forth after the execution has taken place. The transitive verb, "to exonerate" can also mean to informally absolve one from blame.


The term "exoneration" also is used in criminal law to indicate a surety bail bond has been satisfied, completed, and exonerated. The judge orders the bond exonerated; the clerk of court time stamps the original bail bond power and indicates exonerated as the judicial order.

Based on DNA evidence

DNA evidence is a relatively new instrument of exoneration. The first convicted defendant from a United States prison to be released on account of DNA testing was David Vasquez, who had been convicted of homicide, in 1989. Recently, DNA evidence has been used to exonerate a number of persons either on death row or serving lengthy prison sentences. As of October 2003, the number of states authorizing convicts to request DNA testing on their behalf, since 1999, has increased from two to thirty. Access to DNA testing varies greatly by degree; post-conviction tests can be difficult to acquire. Organizations like the Innocence Project are particularly concerned with the exoneration of those who have been convicted based on weak evidence. As of October 2003, prosecutors of criminal cases must approve the defendant's request for DNA testing in certain cases.

Monday, April 23, 2007, Jerry Miller became the 200th person in the United States exonerated through the use of DNA evidence. [1] There is a national campaign in support of the formation of state Innocence Commissions, statewide entities that identify causes of wrongful convictions and develop state reforms that can improve the criminal justice system.

As of December 2018, 362 people in the U.S. had been exonerated based on DNA tests. In nearly half of these cases, faulty forensics contributed to the original conviction. [2]

Per February 4, 2014 NPR article, Laura Sullivan cited Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor stating that exonerations were on the rise, and not just because of DNA evidence. Only one-fifth of the exonerations last year relied on newly tested DNA, a little less than a third of exonerations occurred due to further investigating by law enforcement agencies. [3]

According to a 2020 study, DNA exonerations in rape cases "strongly suggest that the wrongful-conviction rate is significantly higher among black convicts than white convicts." [4]

Exonerees after exoneration

Wrongful conviction has many social, economic, and psychological consequences for people later exonerated, especially for death row exonerees. [5]

After exoneration, some exonerees publicly have joined or formed organizations like Witness to Innocence and the Innocence Project to tell their stories as a form of advocacy against the death penalty, prison conditions, or other criminal justice issues. [6]

See also

Related Research Articles

The Innocence Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal organization that is committed to exonerating individuals who it claims have been wrongly convicted, through the use of DNA testing and working to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. The group cites various studies estimating that in the United States, between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners are innocent. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Scheck and Neufeld gained national attention in the mid-1990s as part of the "Dream Team" of lawyers who formed part of the defense in the O. J. Simpson murder case.

A miscarriage of justice, also known as a wrongful conviction, occurs when a person is convicted and punished for a crime that he or she did not actually commit. It can occur in both criminal and civil proceedings, which includes removal proceedings. The main contributing factors are eyewitness misidentification, faulty forensic analysis, false confessions by vulnerable suspects, perjury and lies told by witnesses, misconduct by police, prosecutors or judges and inadequate defence strategies put forward by the defendant's legal team.

<i>After Innocence</i> 2005 American film

After Innocence is a 2005 American documentary film about men who were exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Directed by Jessica Sanders, the film took the Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Wrongful execution is a miscarriage of justice occurring when an innocent person is put to death by capital punishment. Cases of wrongful execution are cited as an argument by opponents of capital punishment, while proponents suggest that the argument of innocence concerns the credibility of the justice system as a whole and does not solely undermine the use of death penalty.

The Georgia Innocence Project is a non-profit corporation based in Decatur, Georgia, United States. Its mission "is to free the wrongly prosecuted through DNA testing, to advance practices that minimize the chances that others suffer the same fate, to educate the public that wrongful convictions are not rare or isolated events, and to help the exonerated rebuild their lives."

This is a list of notable overturned convictions in the United States.

In United States federal criminal law, the Innocence Protection Act is the first federal death penalty reform to be enacted. The Act seeks to ensure the fair administration of the death penalty and minimize the risk of executing innocent people. The Innocence Protection Act of 2001, introduced in the Senate as S. 486 and the House of Representatives as H.R. 912, was included as Title IV of the omnibus Justice for All Act of 2004, signed into law on October 30, 2004 by President George W. Bush as public law no. 108-405.

Earl Washington Jr. is a former Virginia death-row inmate, who was fully exonerated of murder charges against him in 2000. He had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1984 for the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lyn Williams in Culpeper, Virginia. Washington has an IQ estimated at 69, which classifies him as intellectually disabled. He was coerced into confessing to the crime when arrested on an unrelated charge a year later. He narrowly escaped being executed in 1985 and 1994.

Clarence Elkins American wrongfully convicted murderer and rapist

Clarence Arnold Elkins Sr. is an American man who was convicted wrongfully of the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law, Judith Johnson, and the rape and assault of his wife's niece, Brooke Sutton. He was convicted solely on the basis of the testimony of his wife's six-year-old niece who testified that Elkins was the perpetrator.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society. The Registry was co-founded in 2012 with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law to provide detailed information about known exonerations in the United States since 1989. As of February 6, 2020, the Registry has 2,551 known exonerations in the United States since 1989. The National Registry does not include more than 1,800 defendants cleared in 15 large-scale police scandals that came to light between 1989 and March 7, 2017, in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants.

In law, post conviction refers to the legal process which takes place after a trial results in conviction of the defendant. After conviction, a court will proceed with sentencing the guilty party. In the American criminal justice system, once a defendant has received a guilty verdict, he or she can then challenge a conviction or sentence. This takes place through different legal actions, known as filing an appeal or a federal habeas corpus proceeding. The goal of these proceedings is exoneration, or proving a convicted person innocent. If lacking representation, the defendant may consult or hire an attorney to exercise his or her legal rights.

The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) is a legal based organization at the Santa Clara University School of Law in Santa Clara, California. The organization revisits previous convictions of individuals who are believed to be innocent of their crimes. They are a non-profit clinical program of Santa Clara University School of Law, which looks to promote a more fair, effective and compassionate criminal justice system. The NCIP attempts to protect the rights of all parties involved so that they too may have an adequate trial. NCIP is a member of the national Innocence Project network of similar organizations. The NCIP was created in 2001 by Kathleen "Cookie" Ridolfi and Linda Starr, during this time new legislation in California had permitted convicted inmates to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence.

Thomas Haynesworth is a resident of Richmond, Virginia, who served 27 years in state prison as a result of four wrongful convictions for crimes for which he was exonerated in 2011.

The Illinois Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Project network, is a non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

California Innocence Project American legal non-profit founded 1999

The California Innocence Project is a non-profit based at California Western School of Law in San Diego, California, United States, which provides pro bono legal services to individuals who maintain their factual innocence of crime(s) for which they have been convicted. It is an independent chapter of the Innocence Project. Its mission is to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates through the use of DNA and other evidences.

Investigating Innocence

Investigating Innocence is a nonprofit wrongful conviction advocacy organization that provides criminal defense investigations for inmates in the United States. Investigating Innocence was founded in 2013 by private investigator Bill Clutter to assist nationwide Innocence Project groups in investigating innocence claims. "Once we have a case that meets our criteria, we'll put private investigators to work on it. A lot of these cases need investigators," said Kelly Thompson, executive director of Investigating Innocence. Prior to his work on Investigating Innocence, Clutter was one of the founders of the Illinois Innocence Project. Investigating Innocence also has a board composed of exonerees that reviews incoming cases.

Michael Semanchik American wrongful conviction advocate

Michael "Mike" Semanchik is Managing Attorney at the California Innocence Project (CIP). As part of his work with CIP, he has been involved in many cases involving the exoneration of previously-convicted prisoners, working closely with the organization's director, Justin Brooks, and also preparing petitions for many of CIP's clients. After working at CIP while still a law student at California Western School of Law, following graduation in 2010 he became an investigator and then a staff attorney there.

Bill Clutter American wrongful conviction advocate

Bill Clutter is an American private investigator, wrongful conviction advocate, and author. He is the co-founder of the Illinois Innocence Project and founder of the national wrongful conviction organization Investigating Innocence. His work on the Donaldson v. Central Illinois Public Service Company case led him to write the book Coal Tar: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing America's Children, which is the story of an epidemic of neuroblastoma in Taylorville, IL caused by exposure to coal tar.


  1. The Innocence Project - Know the Cases: Browse Profiles:Jerry Miller Archived April 3, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  2. Colloff, Pamela. "Bloodstain Analysis Convinced a Jury She Stabbed Her 10-Year-Old Son. Now, Even Freedom Can't Give Her Back Her Life". propublica.org. ProPublica. Archived from the original on January 16, 2020. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  3. Sullivan, Laura (4 Feb 2014). "Exonerations On The Rise, And Not Just Because Of DNA". NPR. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
  4. Bjerk, David; Helland, Eric (2020-05-01). "What Can DNA Exonerations Tell Us about Racial Differences in Wrongful-Conviction Rates?". The Journal of Law and Economics. 63 (2): 341–366. doi:10.1086/707080. hdl: 10419/185297 . ISSN   0022-2186.
  5. Grechenig, Nicklisch & Thoeni, Punishment Despite Reasonable Doubt – A Public Goods Experiment with Sanctions under Uncertainty, Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (JELS) 2010, vol. 7 (4), p. 847-867
  6. Rajah, Valli (2021). "Enhancing the tellability of death-row exoneree narratives: Exploring the role of rhetoric" (PDF). Punishment & Society: 1–19.