Exonerating DNA Evidence in Overturned Convictions: Analysis of Data Obtained From the National Registry of Exonerations

Date01 April 2022
Published date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(3) 256 –272
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211033327
Exonerating DNA Evidence
in Overturned Convictions:
Analysis of Data Obtained
From the National Registry
of Exonerations
Mark Saber1, Brooke Nodeland1,
and Robert Wall1
In recent years, advances in DNA testing technology have been coupled with DNA
exonerations. In response, increasing public and empirical attention have been given to
the experiences of those wrongfully convicted by the criminal justice system. Several
jurisdictions have created Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) to review convictions
of primarily violent defendants for wrongful conviction. However, empirical
examination of the impact of CIUs and other factors predicting DNA exoneration
remains limited. This study uses data from the National Registry of Exonerations
to examine the impact of CIUs, location of conviction, and other factors that make
exonerations more likely to feature DNA evidence. Findings suggest that offense
type, year of conviction, and gender are significant predictors of DNA exoneration.
Policy implications are also discussed.
DNA exoneration, wrongful conviction, conviction integrity unit
There has long been discussion of wrongfully convicted persons in the United States
correctional system. In fact, Edwin M. Borchard (1932) examined 65 cases obtained
1University of North Texas, Denton, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mark Saber, Department of Criminal Justice, University of North Texas, Denton, TX 76203, USA.
Email: Mark.saber@unt.edu
1033327CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211033327Criminal Justice Policy ReviewSaber et al.
Saber et al. 257
from government records, newspaper articles, interviews with criminal justice offi-
cers, governors, and pardon boards, and determined that, from time to time, innocent
persons were indeed convicted of crimes. He found these wrongful convictions were
generally the result of misidentification, circumstantial evidence, perjury, and some-
times a combination of these factors. DNA exonerations have revealed that wrongful
convictions of actually innocent individuals occur, and are likely to continue to occur,
with regular frequency (Ware, 2012).
Historically, wrongful convictions were discovered using courtroom/witness testi-
mony, admissions by the guilty party, or scientific testing, such as fingerprints or blood
evidence; however, all this changed during the 1990s with the introduction of DNA
testing (Gould & Leo, 2010). DNA testing introduced a new method for testing physi-
cal evidence that could, with a near certainty, exclude a person’s DNA from a physical
sample, providing stronger evidence in determining wrongful convictions (Gould &
Leo, 2010; Rowe, 1996). DNA profiles are unique to each individual with some esti-
mates suggesting that the odds of any two unrelated people sharing the same DNA
fingerprint as billions to one (Samuels & Asplen, 2000). DNA testing quickly grew in
popularity because of its ability to rule suspects out, and it also provided a newer and
cheaper option for testing evidence (Rowe, 1996). As the use of DNA profiling became
more prevalent, convicted individuals and their attorneys began petitioning for access
to DNA evidence in their cases, so that they could test or retest the evidence with the
new procedure and, in some of these cases, it became clear that the earlier finding of
the court was a wrongful conviction (Rowe, 1996). Despite the strength of DNA evi-
dence, there were still many challenges facing convicted individuals looking to prove
their innocence, such as the commonly held belief that only a small percentage of
cases, or about 1%, were the result of wrongful convictions (B. Smith et al., 2011) and
that the trial system and suspect identifications would prevent the conviction of inno-
cent persons. However, other reported findings from the FBI lab indicated that as
many as 25% of the cases sent for DNA analysis ended up excluding the primary
suspect (Connors et al., 1996), suggesting that more than 1% of cases resulted in
wrongful convictions. In fact, they found that DNA was used to exonerate 28 individu-
als, who, without DNA testing, would have remained incarcerated (Connors et al.,
1996). As the reliability of DNA evidence continued to be demonstrated, it became
clear that the criminal justice system would have to adapt to the more frequent use of
DNA evidence being presented for those already convicted of a crime.
Texas has long been viewed as a “law and order” state, leading the nation in execu-
tions since 1976 with 570 cases (Death Penalty Information Center, 2018). Texas also
has the sixth highest prison population per 100,000 residents in the nation (The
Sentencing Project, 2018). Historically, Texas has received considerable attention, at
both the state and national levels, with regard to high-profile cases as well as high-
profile false convictions. For example, the wrongful conviction, and later posthumous
exoneration, of Timothy Cole (Loewy, 2015; Shaw, 2010) led to the creation of the
Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to evaluate factors leading to wrong-
ful conviction. Also, the wrongful conviction and later subsequent exoneration of
Michael Morton led to procedural changes in trial discovery (Orr & Rodery, 2014).

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT