The National Registry of Exonerations’ announcement this week that 2013 was a record year for exonerations in the United States is an encouraging sign, as Nancy Petro reported here. The registry’s report also offers lots of good data, of which Phil Locke published a good analysis here, on which to base reforms.
But all this good news belies the fact that exonerations are still exceedingly difficult to achieve. And while the registry is correct in reporting that some law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors are more cooperative in identifying and correcting wrongful convictions, it’s important to note that is still the exception to the rule.
Most of that cooperation comes in cases in which DNA testing might provide definitive answers. But with the number of such cases waning as DNA testing becomes common during criminal investigations, innocence investigations are becoming harder as they move to cases without DNA, and they are often resisted by authorities with maddening arguments and stonewalling worthy of Richard Nixon.
But even when there is DNA to test, there is still resistance in some corners of the United States, as Andrew Cohen explains in The Atlantic. “There are … two relevant facts worth noting that are not synthesized into the exoneration report’s analysis,” Cohen says. “The first is that not all states are equal when it comes to prioritizing exonerations. Some simply care less about justice for the wrongfully convicted than others. … The second point that needs to be made in the shadow of the report is that some states today are moving against the flow. Lawmakers in at least two states, Alabama and Tennessee, are seriously considering measures that would tighten appellate deadlines in capital cases, making exonerations harder to achieve.”
Cohen’s sobering words, which you can read here, are a reminder that there is much work still to be done in the exoneration movement.