What does a record number of exonerations in 2013 tell us?

Cleveland Wright, 55, of Washington, outside his parents home in August. Wright seeks to clear his name after serving more than 27 years in prison now that DNA tests last year exonerated his co-defendant in two similar 1978 murders. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Cleveland Wright, 55, of Washington, outside his parents’ home in August. Wright seeks to clear his name after serving more than 27 years in prison now that DNA tests last year exonerated his co-defendant in two similar 1978 murders. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A new report (PDF) by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan finds that in 2013, 87 people were exonerated of serious crimes for which they had been convicted. That’s a record number for one year.

A few thoughts:

• That may seem like a pretty low number. It’s important to remember, though, that most exonerations come by way of DNA testing. After a conviction, and particularly after a defendant has exhausted his appeals, the criminal justice system puts a premium on finality. That makes it extremely difficult to get a new trial. The courts have mostly accepted that DNA testing is conclusive enough to overcome the preference for finality. But the pool of cases for which DNA testing is dispositive of guilt is small. In most cases, DNA isn’t a factor at all, much less the determinant factor. But it would be naive to think that whatever problems in the criminal justice system that led to the exonerations within that small pool of cases — prosecutor misconduct, forensics fraud and malfeasance, flawed eyewitness testimony, etc. — only exist for those cases. Rather, it’s likely that those problems occur at about the same rate in cases for which DNA isn’t a factor.

So the fact that DNA testing is exonerating people shouldn’t make us feel better, it should make us worry about what’s causing those errors and where else they may be occurring. Perhaps it also should cause our appeals courts to rethink how much preference they give to finality.

• The number also says very little about whether we’re getting better or worse at administering justice. These convictions didn’t occur in 2013. They occurred years, sometimes decades, ago. It’s probably a safe bet that we’re quite a bit less likely to convict the wrong person in those cases in which DNA is determinant of guilt. But again, that’s a relatively small batch of cases. And of course, exoneration figures only demonstrate that we sometimes convict the wrong person. They say little about how good we are at convicting the right one.

• That said, the fact that we just had a record year for exonerations — and more than a decade after the introduction of modern DNA testing — is a good sign. If nothing else, that we’re exonerating more people means there are more resources being devoted to looking for these cases. It means that courts are more open to reconsidering old cases. It’s also a testament to the fact that, in some parts of the country, police and prosecutors are actively participating in task forces charged with seeking out the wrongly convicted. This means the public, and in come cases even the gatekeepers, are realizing that the criminal justice system is far from perfect and flawed enough to be concerned. That’s a start.

• That said, hunting down individual cases is a far cry from adequately addressing the systemic problems that allowed those cases to happen. There are still police departments and district attorneys who won’t embrace simple, easy-to-implement reforms such as blind eyewitness lineups or video recording of police interrogations. That means the bigger reforms, including fixing the forensics system and preventing prosecutorial misconduct, are probably still a long way off.

Also on Opinions

Scenes from a militarized America: Iowa family 'terrorized'