Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

This week, Northwestern and the University of Michigan law schools released a National Registry of Exonerations, a new database chronicling the ever-growing number of exonerees from our nation’s criminal justice system.   The database includes over 2,000 people who spent time – sometimes decades – in prison after being wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. This includes over 100 wrongfully convicted of capital murder – which means they were awaiting execution before their sentences were reversed. The Death Penalty information Center, which tracks information about the death penalty, has documented 140 cases where inmates were released from death row with evidence of their innocence.

As astounding as the numbers in the database are, the list of the innocent is likely far longer than what is documented in this valuable resource - and not all of them were exonerated in time. Troy Davis, an African-American man in Georgia, Carlos DeLuna, a Latino man in Texas, and Cameron Todd Willingham, a white man in Texas, were all executed despite compelling evidence of innocence.   The judicial system failed these men twice: it failed them first by convicting them of crimes of which they were likely innocent, and it failed them again by denying them meaningful opportunities to prove their innocence, in time to save their lives.

The National Registry of Exonerations compiles explanations across cases, helping shed light on just how these wrongful convictions happen. The explanations are themselves deeply troubling: false accusations or perjury played a role in a full half of the cases (51%); official misconduct contributed to a large percentage of the wrongful convictions (42%); and junk science or false or misleading evidence played a role in almost a quarter of the cases (24%).   Although the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, along with many others, continue to push for important reforms in the area of junk science, it is hard to be optimistic that the problems of perjury or police misconduct will ever fully be untangled from the criminal justice system.   Ending the death penalty will not solve these problems - but it will make sure that no one else pays for these flaws with his or her life.

Learn more about the death penalty: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (1)
Read the Terms of Use


My son (who is African American), has been in prison since 2001 in California. His conviction was based on false testimony given by a Police informant a Homicide Detective, and Judicial Misconduct. He was found guilty of the murder of an innocent bystander while he was in an altercation with a known Gang member. The bystander was standing more than a block away and according to the Police a bullet my son shot into the foot of his aggressor ricocheted across the street and killed the bystander. Yet, they also stated in records that the bullet shattered on the sidewalk. Yet, California has a Stand Your Ground Law, that should have covered my son. The judicial misconduct came in when the Judge allowed the DA to turn my sons aggressor into a victim. This young man was on Felony Parole in another County, but testified he had never been violent, nor fired a gun. He had been convicted of breaking in to a mans' house and stealing his gun. Yet, he did not want to testify against my son, until they told him he would have blanket immunity. Once he received Blanket Immunity he returned to Oakland and committed numerous felony acts, including assault with a deadly weapon. The judge would allow none of that to come in to the trial.

The judge who had previously over saw a case involving Oakland Police, known as, "Knight Riders" allowed a mock gun to be shown in the trial and taped testimony from my son's girlfriend (who was not there). They threatened her and harassed her at her place of work, so much so that she left town. Then they told the All White jury that my son had threatened his girlfriend and she was afraid to testify. This was just some of the lies and distortions in that courtroom. In the end my son was found guilty under three strikes and sentenced to 66 years in the California State Prison.

Stay Informed