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.