Last month, a man by the name of Jerry Miller was exonerated of rape charges after DNA evidence had proved his innocence. Only one problem: He had already served nearly 25 years in prison. MillerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s exoneration marks a dubious milestone in criminal justice, as he was the 200th wrongly convicted individual to be exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.
The nonprofit legal group known as the Innocence Project has chosen to commemorate this milestone. The Innocence Project bills itself as a Ã¢â‚¬Å“national litigation and public-policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal-justice system to prevent future injustice.Ã¢â‚¬Â It is their hope that by calling attention to MillerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s case, they can generate some momentum behind their reform efforts.
According to the Innocence Project, Ã¢â‚¬Å“DNA testing has freed 200 innocent people from prison. All of them were swept off the streets, forcibly separated from their families and friends, and wrongfully imprisoned for years or decades. Some narrowly escaped execution. Together, they served a total of 2,475 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“And they are just the tip of the iceberg. Nobody truly knows how many innocent people are in prison. Only a small fraction of cases involve evidence that could be tested for DNA and even among those cases, evidence is often lost or destroyed before it can be tested. The DNA exonerations provide irrefutable proof of the causes of wrongful convictions and they give us a roadmap for fixing the criminal justice system.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The ProjectÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s public-policy reforms revolve around seven high-priority issues. The first, and perhaps most important, of these issues is eyewitness identification reform. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification,Ã¢â‚¬Â they note. Other significant reforms revolve around false confessions, poor access for prisoners to post-conviction DNA testing, limited evidence preservation, and faulty (or non-existent) crime-lab oversight. The group also calls for the establishment of criminal justice reform commissions along with a workable system of exoneree compensation.
The group also points to the role of racism in the justice-systemÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s flaws. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Racism continues to be a significant cause of wrongful convictions. While 29 percent of people in prison for rape are black, 64 percent of the people who were wrongfully convicted of rape (and then exonerated through DNA) are black. Moreover, most sexual assaults nationwide are among perpetrators and victims of the same race (the federal government says just 12 percent of sexual assaults are cross racial), but two-thirds of all black men exonerated through DNA evidence were wrongfully convicted of raping white people.Ã¢â‚¬Â
While DNA testing has given new life to scores of wrongly convicted individuals, its biggest benefit may be as an impetus to criminal-justice reform that would reduce the risks of wrongful conviction.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Like many of the 200 people who have been exonerated through DNA, Jerry Miller lost nearly his entire adult life because of a wrongful conviction,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s impossible to put ourselves in his shoes, but we all have a moral obligation to learn from these exonerations and prevent anyone else from enduring this tragedy.Ã¢â‚¬Â