On the 200th DNA Exoneration in the U.S.
Jerry Miller was 22 years old when he was arrested and charged with a brutal rape, robbery and kidnapping. He was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Today, 26 years later, Jerry Miller will be exonerated because DNA testing proves what he said all along - that he is innocent.
Jerry is 48 years old now. He has lost virtually his entire adult life to a wrongful conviction. And he is the 200th person in the United States who has been exonerated through DNA evidence.
I'm in Chicago for Jerry's exoneration today, and it's impossible not to think about all the other people who have walked out of prison after serving years or decades for crimes they did not commit. These 200 people are a remarkably diverse group - they include a rich man's son in Oklahoma, homeless people, school teachers, day laborers, athletes and military veterans. But mostly they are African-American men without money to hire good lawyers (or, sometimes, any lawyers).
Combined, these 200 people have served about 2,500 years in prison - that's roughly a million nights in prison.
People often tell me they can't imagine anything worse than spending years or decades in prison for a crime someone else committed. The only thing worse would be to endure the horror of wrongful conviction and not have it count for something - to have society fail to learn the lessons of injustice and reform the system to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
The 200 DNA exonerations nationwide give us irrefutable scientific proof of the flaws in the criminal justice system. We look at every exoneration to determine what caused the wrongful conviction in the first place, and we see clear patterns. More than 75% of the wrongful convictions involved eyewitness misidentification (often cross-racial misidentification, and often from more than one witness); nearly two-thirds involve forensic science errors (from simple mistakes to outright fraud); 25% were based on false confessions (as the result of coercive interrogations or defendants' limited mental capabilities).
By identifying the causes of wrongful convictions, we can develop reforms that work - and the first 200 DNA exonerations have already transformed the system. Our reform agenda is taking hold nationwide because it has growing support from the law enforcement community, which sees that our reforms don't just protect the innocent, but that they also enhance the capability of law enforcement agencies to apprehend the true perpetrators of crime.
Dozens of cities and states have changed their eyewitness identification procedures to make them more accurate, 500 jurisdictions now record interrogations to prevent false confessions, the federal government has implemented important crime lab standards and 40 states now grant prisoners access to DNA testing that can prove their innocence. But it's not enough. The Innocence Project receives thousands of letters a year from prisoners and their families, detailing flawed investigations and trials that were predestined to convict the wrong person.
We are in a race against time to test evidence before it is destroyed and to prove the truth before one of our clients spends another day behind bars. And we are in a race against time to fix the system before one more innocent person is swept off the streets, forcibly separated from his family and robbed of his freedom.
Today, the Innocence Project launches "200 Exonerated, Too Many Wrongfully Convicted," a month-long national campaign to create state Innocence Commissions and enact other reforms that can address and prevent wrongful convictions. We don't know how many innocent people are in prison. Instead, we ask how many more will have to be exonerated through the hard science of DNA before every jurisdiction in the country enacts reforms that can prevent this injustice from happening in the first place. We owe these 200 innocent people - and ourselves - no less.
Barry Scheck is the Co-Director of the Innocence Project