Thursday, April 15, 2010

Post Conviction DNA Testing Emptying Prisons? Hardly

William Blackstone once said, "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." There has been increasing awareness that, at times, people are convicted of crimes they did not commit. DNA technology has provided another layer of review to insure that justice extends to those who are falsely convicted.

Freddie Peacock is the 250th person to be exonerated by DNA since 1989. According to the New York Times, he was arrested in July 1976 when a woman accused him of rape outside her Rochester apartment building. After initially denying involvement, Peacock confessed during a police interrogation. Apparently, Peacock was unable to provide any details of the crime, including where, when or how it had occurred, and later recanted his confession. At the time, Peacock was suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

He was convicted of rape and sentenced to prison. He was released in 1982. Ever since, Peacock fought to clear his name. He was successful earlier this year after having sought to have evidence analyzed for DNA.

My Take

Serving five years in prison after being wrongly convicted is a horrible fate. However, how pervasive is the problem of wrongful convictions? A closer look at the numbers is revealing. Using the first DNA exoneration in 1989 as a starting point, there have been approximately 400,000 murders and 2.8 million rapes in this country. There have been 250 DNA exonerations.

Those numbers may be a bit skewed. For instance, Peacock's exoneration came from a conviction in 1976. There were literally millions of rapes and murders in this country between 1976 and 1989.

Why look only at the DNA exonerations? Sure there have been other people convicted of crime who have been released. Men have been released from death row. However, those are not proven cases of actual innocence. Many have been released from prison after the court overturned their convictions or they were awarded new trials and acquitted or were not re-tried due to unavailable witnesses or passage of time.

The DNA exonerations are the actual innocents--and there are only 250. That is not to diminish the pain and suffering they have endured, but it represents .00008 of all persons convicted of murder and rape in the United States since 1989.

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