Framing DNA

Published date01 February 2017
Date01 February 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2017, Vol. 33(1) 26 –42
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986216673014
Framing DNA: Social
Movement Theory and the
Foundations of the Innocence
Robert J. Norris1
The “innocence movement” has often been mentioned, but rarely explored in depth.
In particular, scholars have yet to study the beginning of the movement thoroughly.
This article explores the early history of the innocence movement, referred to as the
“foundations” of the movement, suggesting that the common focus solely on DNA as
the source of the movement is an overly narrow historical focus. Based on archival
research and interviews with key movement participants, this article draws on social
movement theory to better understand the roots of the innocence movement, including
its organizational foundation, early leadership, and the identification of the “problem” of
wrongful conviction as a cause worthy of collective action. These three developments
re-framed DNA as a tool to seek justice through post-conviction exonerations, thus
creating the foundation on which the innocence movement was built.
wrongful conviction, innocence movement, Innocence Project, social movement,
Over the past few decades, the American criminal justice system has been transformed
by an old phenomenon, newly discovered. Wrongful convictions—the convictions of
people who are factually innocent—have occurred in the United States for at least 200
years. It was not until recently, however, that such errors generated widespread con-
cern and coalesced into an organized reform effort. This so-called “innocence
1Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Robert J. Norris, Appalachian State University, PO Box 32107, Boone, NC 28608, USA.
673014CCJXXX10.1177/1043986216673014Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeNorris
Norris 27
movement”—the focus of this edited volume—has emerged in recent years to free the
innocent, assist them in reentry, and reform the criminal justice system to prevent
future injustices.
The goal of this article is to examine the foundations of this modern phenomenon,
analyzing innocence as a social movement. I conducted interviews with key members of
the innocence community, as well as archival research, to further develop our understand-
ing of the movement’s history.1 I argue that coverage to this point has been limited, focus-
ing on DNA as the sole cause of the innocence movement. Although DNA has been vital
to the movement, I suggest that its framing as a tool to seek justice through exoneration is
what allowed it to drive the innocence movement. That framing was due, in large part, to
the foundations that were laid in the decade prior to the first DNA exonerations in the
United States. In particular, I focus on three foundational building blocks—an organiza-
tional foundation, the early emergence of movement leaders, and the understanding of
wrongful convictions as a systemic problem—that allowed DNA to be re-framed in such
a way as to serve as the motivator behind the innocence movement.
I begin with a general description of the innocence movement. I then discuss the
limitations in our current understanding of the movement’s history, provide a brief
chronology of its beginnings, and use perspectives from social movement research to
analyze the foundations of the movement.
The Innocence Revelation
Over the last 30 years, more than 1,800 people have been exonerated in the United
States; National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) cases show that in recent years,
exonerations have occurred at a rate of more than two per week.2 There is now an
organized reform effort, led by the Innocence Network, an affiliation of approximately
70 organizations in the United States and abroad that work to free innocents from
prison, assist them in their return to society, and reform the criminal justice system.
Exonerees are also involved in the movement, forming their own organizations and
advocating for positive change in the justice system.
The innocence reform agenda has had some success at all levels. At the federal
level, the 2004 Innocence Protection Act provided standards for DNA testing for
potentially innocent prisoners, quality defense in capital cases, and increased federal
compensation for the exonerated. In 2015, Congress approved the Wrongful Convictions
Tax Relief Act, which stipulates that compensation awards and civil suits won by exon-
erees are exempt from taxes. In addition, more than 35 states have addressed at least
one major contributing factor to wrongful convictions or established commissions to
study errors and propose reforms (Norris, Bonventre, Redlich, & Acker, 2010/2011),
and 30 now have compensation statutes to provide monetary and other assistance to
exonerees after release (see Norris, 2012). Finally, at the local level, a number of
police agencies now record interrogations and have altered their eyewitness practices
to better conform to scientific best practices (e.g., Sullivan, 2016), and several District
Attorneys’ offices have established Conviction Integrity Units to review potentially
questionable convictions (e.g., Emily, 2010).

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