On February 4, the National Registry of Exonerations published its yearly report for 2013. The Registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, collects information on exonerations that have occurred since 1989. The headlines on the new report (from the New York Times to NBC News to the Huffington Post) nearly all focused on one fact: 2013 saw 87 exonerations, the highest yearly total yet in any year since 1989.
This is a significant fact. But two other things in the report got less notice and deserve more.
First, for most people, “exoneration” is synonymous with “DNA exoneration.” This is how the world looks, whether on television (think of CSI and its many clones) or in any news source. But this view doesn’t reflect the real world. As the report points out, only about 21 percent of the exonerations in 2013 involved DNA (p. 6). Despite the impression one gets from the media, this has always been the case; of all of the exonerations since 1989, 72 percent were not based on DNA. And that difference seems to be increasing. In both 2012 and 2013, non-DNA exonerations increased significantly, while DNA exonerations decreased (p. 12).
The other fact that many in the media did not notice: for the last two years, the percentage of all exoneration cases resolved with the cooperation of the police or prosecutors has risen dramatically. In 2012, almost half of all the cases featured cooperation of the police or prosecutors in re-examining cases, leading to exoneration; the average percentage in all the years before (1989-2011) did not reach 30 percent. The trend continued this year, with almost police or prosecutors cooperating in almost 40 percent of all exonerations. (A few media organizations, such as Fox News, NPR, and the Christian Science Monitor, featured this fact in their headlines and/or stories.)
This is a very welcome and important development. While some exonerations have always come about with law enforcement cooperation, this was not the trend. Despite assurances from Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association that “we always did that, we just didn’t” have a name for the process (see his quote here), the data on the last two years do show a greater willingness to re-examine old cases than in years past. According to Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, who edits the Registry, “the sharp, cold shower that DNA gave to the criminal justice system has made us realize that we have to re-examine” closed cases whether with DNA or not. That idea appears to be sinking on a much wider basis. And that is all to the good.