Criminal Justice

The 250th DNA Exoneration

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Freddie Peacock, 60, of Rochester, New York has become the 250th person exonerated by DNA testing. Peacock was convicted of rape in 1976 and paroled in 1982. He tried to remain on parole so he'd still have access to the courts to clear his name.

The Innocence Project breaks down the 250 exonerations over the last 20 years:

• There have been DNA exonerations in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

• The top three states for DNA exonerations are New York (with 25), Texas (with 40) and Illinois (with 29).

• 76% of the wrongful convictions involved eyewitness misidentification.

• 50% involved unvalidated or improper forensic science.

• 27% relied on a false confession, admission or guilty plea.

• 70% of the 250 people exonerated are people of color (60% are black; nearly 9% are Latino; 29% are white).

Dallas County, Texas alone has had 19 DNA exonerations, in part because it's one of the only jurisdictions in the country with a district attorney who is actually seeking out false convictions. That's a pretty good indication that the 250 figure would be higher if there were more DAs like him.

One other point: The subset of cases for which DNA testing is dispositive of guilt is pretty small. So it also seems safe to say that whatever flaws in the criminal justice system that allowed these wrongful convictions to happen are just as prevalent in the much larger set of cases where DNA isn't a factor.

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  1. Cameron Todd Willingham was unavailable for comment.

    1. Hey, are you trying to horn in on Balko’s “World’s Biggest Downer” status?

      1. Nah, looks like he’s got that one wrapped up for now.

        The Willingham case was pretty messed up though. Anytime I read about DNA exonerations I immediately think of the Willingham case not so much for the DNA angle, but for the catastrophic aberration that was his trial and sentencing.

        As they say the only thing worse than letting a guilty murderer go free is putting to death an innocent man. Until we can rectify this margin of error I can’t in any good conscience support the death penalty for civilian courts.

        1. Rick Perry has no comment.

          1. And I couldn’t care less what that asshole has to say. He is not responsible enough to continue to hold that much power. He could have stayed the execution until a full vetting of the evidence used to convict him was properly examined. He not only failed to do that but he also has now squashed any post-execution examination of the entire case and the methods used to convict him. If he has nothing to hide he should be allowing a complete and thorough investigation of the case and let it be as open and public as possible. Clearly, he has something to hide.

            I plan on donating money to whomever challenges him in the general election.

  2. Not to quibble, but this doesn’t seem quite right: “He tried to remain on parole so he’d still have access to the courts to clear his name.”

    Yes, that would be one reason to remain on parole. The most important however, would probably be to avoid going back to jail!

    1. I read that as meaning he could have ended his parole in the sense of his sentence being completed. I assumed that that would mean he could no longer pursue getting his conviction overturned.

      Can someone with info about the laws in New York clarify this point?

  3. Balko: go back to school, get a law degree and run for DA. I’ll move to wherever you get elected.

    Hell, let’s make people sign a pledge to move to wherever you choose to run for office — that way, you can have a huge infusion of positive votes.

    We’ll call it the “Other Free State Project”.

  4. Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a statement denouncing DNA as ‘just a theory’.

    1. LOL.

      Obviously. His Ouija board said they were guilty.

  5. On the Innocence Project in general:

    Freeing an innocent man is equal to freeing a slave.

  6. Radley’s turn of phrase caught my eye, so I read through the link for just that kind of info (that somehow he had to remain within the system in order to access the courts). I didn’t see anything in the Rocnow article to suggest that this was the case…

  7. Balko, you write that “The subset of cases for which DNA testing is dispositive of guilt is pretty small. So it also seems safe to say that whatever flaws in the criminal justice system that allowed these wrongful convictions to happen are just as prevalent in the much larger set of cases where DNA isn’t a factor.”

    I’ve always felt the same way myself. It seems to me (a non-lawyer) that cases which involve DNA evidence are rapes and murders which carry very stiff penalties. Correct me if I’m wrong, but generally aren’t you afforded more experienced public defenders the more severe the case? Whenever I read of a death penalty case, the defendant seems to have high-profile defense attornies working on his behalf. Moreover, because of the nature of the case and the appeals process everyone seems to be at pains to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. And yet we STILL end up with innocent men on death row. Given this, it seems safe to conclude that wrongful convictions are actually more prevalent in general than they are in these special cases. Am I wrong here? It just seems like that if you can be wrongly convicted for a capital crime you are more likely to be wrongly convicted for a simple burglery charge because in the professional’s eyes it’s “small potatos” and they aren’t going to sweat the details.

    1. I think there is no doubt that this is the case. Radley mentions faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy forensic science and false admission/confession/guilty pleas as being much of the problem. Eyewitness testimony, the use of forensic science and guilty pleas are certainly common in many other cases besides just murders. Unfortunately, defense attorneys have less incentive to put up a fight there, either because they are less able attorneys or the case is lower profile. Many defendants are also unwilling or financially unable to take the risk of going to trial and fighting, particularly with a lesser charge. So you end up with a colossal mess where most cases are disposed of via plea bargain- which is problem in and of itself.

      1. Not to imply there aren’t any shitty attorneys out there, but there’s plenty of cases where even if you thought they were innocent, pleading them out is the safest bet. If you have people lying/mistakenly putting the gun in a guys hand, and ostensibly valid forensic evidence, you really don’t want to go to trial in front a jury that is full of people who pretty much assume your client’s guilty. Especially when your client looks/is a scumbag in general, you ain’t getting the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the jury instructions say.

        1. Not to mention, at least on the federal level, they turbocharge the indictment– so if you go to trial and lose, it’s 12 years. f you plead, it’s 4. Or it go to trial its up to 40 years, but plea— and you get 25. Even at a coin flip at trial, which it ain’t, the best bet is to plead out.

  8. “I have combined the DNA of the most evil animals to create the most evil creature of all.”

    (out steps a prosecutor)

  9. ? 70% of the 250 people exonerated are people of color (60% are black; nearly 9% are Latino; 29% are white).

    That pretty closely tracks charge rates, which of course have their own problems. White guys might be getting the shit end of wrongful conviction by those numbers, even. Or innocence projects favor them? Could be.

    What DNA-solvable crime is is broke-dude crime, and broke dudes always get convicted, no matter what the evidence is. A bare race breakdown, especially phrased for crowd-pleasing like that, is shocking! non-information.

    An explicitly economic breakdown might tell people something they don’t already know, or don’t want to talk about. I suppose that’s why there isn’t one. Solely racist prosecutions are too rare to explain those numbers, but they’re a fixed idea. Trial-by-class is routine and unspeakable.

  10. “I have combined the DNA of the most evil animals to create the most evil creature of all.”

    Did you have to use the sample from Steve Smith?

    1. STEVE NOT EVIL, LIKE MOM! STEVE MORE LIKE GERMANY, VICIOUS AND MISUNDERSTOOD!

  11. Hurray for Dallas.

    1. Yes, but they have a lot to make up for. In “The Thin Blue Line”, a documentary about an innocent man being railroaded in Dallas, they quote a former chief prosecutor as saying something like “anyone can convict the guilty -a good DA is one who can put an innocent man behind bars”.

      It makes me wish I believed in hell.

  12. This is great news, especially for those exonerated. It would be nice to review all conviction like this, but of course that’s not possible numerically. Therefore, I would offer a convict this opportunity to clear himself with DNA, BUT if it confirms his conviction, then he gets life, unless he already has life, then he loses it. We got to weed out the guys who know they are guilty somehow.

  13. Any wrongful prosecution lawsuits filed (or better yet) won from those exonerations? If so, get me on the jury.

    1. It hasn’t even been established that a prosecutor can be held liable for actually actively manufacturing false evidence. They have absolute immunity if they are acting in a prosecutorial capacity- and possibly even if acting in an investigative capacity.

  14. “The 250th DNA Exoneration”

    So you’re saying that DNA didn’t do the crimes?

    1. Nope. Gene did.

  15. I used to hear talk among attorneys that roughly 10% of everyone in prison was innocent of the crime charged. Defense attorneys would say 20%, but I figure they were required by profession to exaggerate. In any event, I think the 10% figure is sounding likely.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised at that, PL.

      Even sadder is the fact that many of those ‘guilty’ people in the US and Canada are ‘guilty’ of ‘crimes’ that should not be considered crimes.

      1. Yes, let’s not forget that, either.

  16. Radley,

    Miami Beach police brutality caught on tape during 911 call. Officers still on duty (of course). Here.

  17. Officers still on duty (of course).

    I wish I was surprised to hear that.

    1. I guess their promotions haven’t come through yet.

      1. What’s this? A cynic on a libertarian discussion site?

        Unpossible!

    2. You have to give these guys a break. There wasn’t even a dog around to shoot.

  18. “Dallas County, Texas alone has had 19 DNA exonerations, in part because it’s one of the only jurisdictions in the country with a district attorney who is actually honest and doesn’t prosecute to advance his career”

    There, fixed it for you.

  19. One serious comment – how many exonerations before we can stop hearing that the American system would rather see 10 guilty men go free than put one innocent man behind bars?
    O yeah, the judicial gang will never look at themselves critically.

  20. That’s funny, I did PCR today for the first time in months.

  21. Style quibble:
    “Dallas County, Texas alone has had 19 DNA exonerations, in part because it’s one of the only jurisdictions in the country with a district attorney, Craig Watkins, who is actually seeking out false convictions.”

    Use the good guy’s name. He deserves the mention.

    1. Hear, hear! I’d like to see Craig Watkins in charge of the DOJ. He’s the kind of lawman who could turn that agency into a genuine justice department.

      -jcr

  22. Why aren’t the guilty prosecuted? Janice Warder has been associatied with more wrongful convictions than any attorney. She was found in a court of law to have withheld evidence as a Dallas prosecutor. She was found in a court of law to have withheld evidence from the jury as a Dallas Judge. She is still practicing law in Texas.
    http://cbs11tv.com/local/chris…..65489.html

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