DNA Exonerations

  • March 31, 2011
    Convicting the Innocent
    Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong
    Brandon L. Garrett

    By Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. You can follow updates related to Garrett’s book, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” at the book’s Facebook page here.

    On January 20, 1984, Earl Washington, Jr. was found guilty of rape and murder in the state of Virginia and sentenced to death. After nine years on death row, DNA testing cast doubt on his conviction and saved his life. However, he spent another eight years in prison before more sophisticated DNA technology proved his innocence and convicted the guilty man. 

    DNA exonerations have shattered confidence in the criminal justice system by exposing how often we have convicted the innocent and let the guilty walk free.   Wrongful convictions are ubiquitous in the news.  In just the past few weeks, yet another innocent man was freed by DNA tests in Virginia.  Improvements to eyewitness identification procedures in response to wrongful convictions have been considered by legislators, scandals have wracked  dozens of crime laboratories and Congress is considering legislation in response, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that civil rights actions can be used to seek DNA testing, In my new book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, I examine what went wrong in the cases of the first 250 wrongfully convicted people to be exonerated by DNA testing. I studied their trial transcripts, pre-trial hearings, appellate and post-conviction rulings, and confession statements. 

    A close look at the transcripts from Washington’s original criminal trial sheds light on how he was convicted in the first place.  His lawyer had never tried a death penalty case before, and it showed.  The guilt phase of the trial was only five hours long.  The prosecution presented a series of witnesses, but Washington was defended for all of forty minutes. His lawyer never claimed he was innocent, never challenged his confession, and never hired an expert to develop how he confessed due to mental retardation. The jury heard that Washington confessed to a series of details that supposedly only the killer could have known. We now know this confession was false and this mentally retarded young man likely just answered “Yes, sir,” each time law enforcement told him more about how the crime happened.

  • February 4, 2010
    Picking Cotton
    Our Memoir of Justice and Redemption
    Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo

    [Editors' Note: After the break, this post includes the author's first-hand account of a violent crime that may not be appropriate for all readers.]

    By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a mother and advocate for judicial reformĀ 

    As I travel across America telling our story, one of the most common questions I hear is, "How long did it take you two to write your book"? It took 25 years.

    In July of 1984, I attended Elon College, a small school nestled beside Burlington, N.C. Living off-campus, I studied hard, worked two jobs, and dated my long-term boyfriend. It was a particularly hot summer, with both the temperature and humidity consistently high. My boyfriend and I spent one of those sticky, July days together playing tennis and later going out to dinner. We planned to attend a party that night, but a raging headache sent me home around 9 p.m. and I went to bed under a loud and rattling air conditioning unit hanging over my bed. I never heard the break-in, but the clock read 3 a.m. when I sensed a presence in the room. The sound of feet sliding on carpet and a brush against my left arm sharpened my consciousness.

    "Who is it? Who's there?" I asked. In the blink of an eye he was on top of me, and I felt a cold, sharp object go to me throat. My screams were quickly muffled with a gloved hand and the violent command "Shut up or I'll kill you!" Every nerve ending was on high alert; I knew that my life was in grave danger, and there was nothing I could do to prevent him from killing me. Images of my mother and father filing into the morgue flashed through my mind. I would never see another sunset, tell my family that I loved them, attend graduate school or be a mom. I could not defend myself, and this horrible monster knew it.