Not Guilty: Wrongful Conviction In The US (Infographic)

Not Guilty: Wrongful Conviction In The US (Infographic)


The US legal system is one of the best in the world, but it isn’t without its flaws. The exact number of wrongful convictions will never actually be known, which is why it’s considered one of the most detrimental flaws of the US legal system as a whole.

This infographic from Forensic Science details a few major key points of wrongful convictions in the US.

Let’s break it down in point form to highlight some of the points the graphic shows:

  • 271 convicts have been exonerated by DNA evidence in US history.
  • 13 years is the average sentence served by DNA exonerates.
  • In nearly 40% of DNA exoneration cases, the real culprit was later identified by DNA.

Feel free to discuss in the comments!

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Not Guilty - DNA Evidence Exoneration
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  • Tully

    Wrongful conviction certainly sucks (and is why I think the death penalty should require a much higher standard of proof, as in “no reasonable doubt whatsoever”) and for the person wrongfully convicted and their friends and families is a major tragedy. However, I would note the infographic does not provide ANY baseline numbers for contextual comparison.

    Some numbers: 271 wrongful convictions would be roughly 0.011% of the current number of people currently serving time in US prisons and jails, or 0.0035% of those currently incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.

    Not that such a small rate is any damn comfort if you’re innocent and behind bars.

  • theWord

    In Illinois it was 7 of 12 on Death Row which is why we did aways with it. Does anyone really think Texas and Florida which are like the Walmart of killing would be much different?

  • Tully

    You should review your numbers for Illinois, because as near as I can tell they’re rather imaginary. And we should be careful of conflating “wrongfully convicted” with “innocent.” You can be guilty of a crime and still be “wrongfully convicted” of it due to police or prosecutor misconduct.

    When Gov. Quinn signed the 2011 legislation repealing the death penalty in IL he commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates on Death Row to life no parole — and I can’t find a single case among them that suggests innocence.

    When Gov. Ryan cleared Death Row in 2003 through executive action he commuted 167 death sentences to life in prison, but only pardoned four inmates on capital charges — all of whom had been tortured into confessions by Chicago PD. One of them remained in prison on other convictions.

    Of the 19 exonerations claimed by the Innocence Project people, police- torture-driven confessions also play a huge role. Something in the water coolers at CPD? A couple of the “exonerated” may well have been guilty, but were definitely not given remotely fair trials.

    So I don’t see where you’re getting “7 out of 12.”

    My state still has the DP, but to get it you pretty much have to reach the “no damn doubt at all” standard. Otherwise you get the Hard 40, often multiples of it to be served consecutively. (Hard 40 is 40 years, no parole, no good behavior, no early release. You do 40 years, period.) Of course, we’re not a state known for police officers torturing confessions out of suspects.

    Having reviewed those cases, I am very glad I don’t live in Chicago. And I can understand why people are very reluctant to ever depend on CPD for anything.

  • Tully

    To add: Ryan’s clearing of Death Row in 2003 by executive action was a brave move for a politician. The continual revelations of the brutality of CPD in “clearing” cases by torturing confessions from “suspects” sans actual solid evidence obviously sickened him. Good for Ryan.

  • kranky kritter

    The exact number of wrongful convictions will never actually be known, which is why it’s considered one of the most detrimental flaws of the US legal system as a whole.

    I don’t understand why the inability to know that number is why “it’s considered one of the most detrimental flaws.” This sentence doesn’t make that much sense to me. What are you trying to say? All justice systems have the same flaw, as near as I can tell.

  • Thomas

    Not suggesting for a moment that punishing innocents is in any way acceptable, but, less than three hundred exonerations out of how many violent crimes committed in the US since the advent of DNA technology?

    We really might have the best justice system on Earth.

  • Tully

    Thomas, note that how many crimes since DNA technology became widespread is too limiting for the denominator. Many or most those freed thanks to DNA technology were convicted when it was simply not available. Given that, we would expect that there would be fewer wrongful convictions going forward as DNA testing would have cleared such suspects before a trial.

    Just from reviewing those IL numbers, for most of those released/pardoned DNA testing did not play a role. The biggest single factor was gross abuse by Chicago PD and prosecutors. Nationwide DNA has played a larger role in getting people released, as DNA testing was applied to old evidence for the first time in those cases.

  • theWord

    @ Tully, you said
    You should review your numbers for Illinois, because as near as I can tell they’re rather imaginary.

    I certainly don’t expect you to believe them since I can’t locate them at the moment but living in IL, the number was widely known and was at most 1 off from my memory. It’s why there was little attacking of the position by the Governor who was a Republican. I did find a site that had the number of people who had been on Death Row here at 20 now. Realize that these numbers are always at points in time. It’s a bit like trying to nail jello.

    There were three innocent people from a case in the town I live in (not Chicago) We’ve talked about it before. Cruz and Hernandez should show you two off the top of my head and they repeatedly tried to murder them. I don’t think there is a more appropriate term when they were innocent and they repeatedly tried to take their lives.

    You mention DNA but I believe Texas had a case in the last few years where they refused to order DNA testing even though it could have proved or disproved a convictions.

    If you really care, I will try to track down the documentation on the numbers. I don’t think it matters personally. I can’t think of a rationale for killing an innocent person in the name of the state’s people. I don’t think perfection will ever happen and you can’t get that mistake back.

    Here’s one look at the numbers http://deadlineth

  • theWord

    The key sentence for this purpose “Since 1977, Illinois alone has exonerated 20 death row inmates, seven of them since 2000. ”

    You stated 15 were on Death Row at about that point in time. Assuming that that number was in the ball park, it seems the 7 of 12 number could/would have been accurate for that point in time.

    Hope that clears up where and how the Governor came up with the number and why my memory was that specific number. Unlike Kyl, I would never try to make a number up. :-)

  • theWord

    and finally you said
    A couple of the “exonerated” may well have been guilty, but were definitely not given remotely fair trials.

    You are correct, it would only be important to note that if you believe in the American form of justice which is theoretically Innocent until proven guilty :-)

  • Tully

    There is no one on Death Row in Illinois right now, as the IL DP was abolished several months ago. That commuted the 15 prisoners there to life in prison, and from my cursory case review not a single one of them has a hint of innocence about them*.

    Of Ryan’s commutations and pardons, there were 4 pardons from the DP out of the 167 inmates on IL Death Row, and one of those four remains in prison for near-life on other convictions. All 4 pardons were directly attributable to CPD and Cook County prosecutor’s gross abuses, not to DNA evidence. I found only three DNA-linked Death Row exonerations for IL, including Cruz and Hernandez (1995) but there sure could be more. But 7 out of 12, implying a wrongful conviction rate of OVER 50%?? Um, no.

    I suspect you’re remembering a blurb relating to the actual number of cases Project Innocence or some such took on and how many they got exonerations on — but that’s data cherry-picked from the start to exclude the clearly guilty. They take on very questionable convictions, not rock-solid ones. The op/ed you link is not helpful as it lacks specific reference links, though I can believe 20 exonerations in IL, just maybe not all from Death Row (see below).

    The Texas case was much ado about nothing. The other evidence against the man was overwhelming, and his lawyers were playing up bio-samples collected at the scene that might not have even been related to the murder, and that were never used as evidence at trial. DNA testing would have proved nothing there, it was just a red herring being used by his lawyers in a last-ditch attempt to delay execution.

    Lastly, the DP is not the only sentence one wrongfully convicted can get, but it is the only one that has zero allowance for rectification after sentence has been carried out. I suspect the number one crime for which DNA has resulted in exonerations is rape, that being where the exonerating DNA evidence can be really definitive — foreign DNA found inside the victim is pretty tough to argue with. Some of those rapes will involve murder as well, of course.

    (*–though I suspect they ALL claim to be innocent … )

  • theWord

    @Tully I think we are talking about two different things here. The 12 were people on Death Row not a percentage of all Capital Cases or all convictions so Um Yes.

    There was also a third guy they tried to railroad with Cruz and Hernandez.

    Here’s another Anthony Porter (born 1955) was a prisoner on death row whose conviction was overturned in 1999 due to the investigation of two Northwestern University School of Law professors and students from the Medill School of Journalism, and is notable for being an exonerated death row inmate that was once 50 hours away from execution.[1] (from Wikipedia)

    Oddly enough, I know we abolished the Death Penalty. :-0 The 15 left were from the larger number that formerly included the innocent exonerated ones so they may all be guilty. I hope so after getting rid of all the ones who weren’t. Here’s another list I located

    Since it appears on the substance we agree, I’ll let this dog lie. I’m not sure about your 15 vs 167 distinction either perhaps that is where we were getting lost in the mix.

  • Tully

    The “7 since 2000” would be the four Ryan pardoned in 2003 (one of whom is still in prison on other convictions) and the three between then and this spring when the IL DP was abolished. Of those latter three, none were actually on Death Row after 2003, one having previously had his sentence commuted by Ryan then having had charges dropped after a new trial was ordered on appeal, another having had sentence reduced to life on appeal before getting a new trial and charges dropped, and the third having been acquitted at a retrial after the judge ruled against key evidence as illegally obtained. Of the three, none were clearly innocent save in the legal sense of not having been properly proven guilty. In all three cases there was significant police/prosecutorial misconduct involved and DNA played no role. All three had been initially sentenced to Death Row before Ryan’s executive actions. The 15 on Death Row after 2003 were all new convictions, and as I said, none seem innocent and none have been “exonerated.”

    I think what I really object to is the lumping together of those clearly innocent who have won release and those whose guilt is still somewhat likely but who can’t be re-convicted 20 years or more after their crimes due to the official misconduct and lack of evidence after judicial exclusions. The anti-DP people lump all of them together, of course, to plump the numbers.

    IOW, “not re-convicted or re-prosecuted” is not the same to me as “exonerated.” The latter implies actually proven innocent, like Cruz and Hernandez.

  • theWord

    @Tully again we are talking about two different things. The number I mentioned that started all of this was for before 2000. It was because the number was so far out of whack that Ryan put a moratorium on the Death Penalty IN 2000. I have pointed out 3, if you are dead set on it, I can track down the rest but the question remains, how many dead innocent people are too many and do you really think IL is an aberration or do other states make mistakes or have prosecuters willing to cut corners?

    Sorry for the confusion on the report. I was just trying to point out that there seemed to be alot of people who were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt who really weren’t

  • Gregory

    America’s law system isn’t the only thing flawed!

  • http://none J$

    @Tully “Some numbers: 271 wrongful convictions would be roughly 0.011% of the current number of people currently serving time in US prisons and jails, or 0.0035% of those currently incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.”

    This is a similar error and assumption made by Justice Scalia when calculating a percentage of exonerations to the prison population. 272 post conviction exonerations have been granted due to DNA evidence. First off, this does not include those who have been shown to be innocent through eyewitness recantations, confessions from the actual offender and other means aside from DNA evidence, therefore the number of those who are exonerated is actually higher.

    Most importantly, the prison population that you have taken includes everyone. Those who are in prison for parole violations, thefts, armed robberies and other crimes. A great majority of cases don’t involve DNA evidence at all. The majority of the exonerations however, actually stem from sexual assault and homicide cases where DNA evidence is most likely to be obtained, therefore the pool of persons is actually much smaller. Your statistic is similar to one calculating major league baseball statistics by taking a pool that includes little leaguers, high school players, college players and professional players. The statistic would certainly be inaccurate.

    Furthermore, prisons are for convicted persons. Jails often house those who are either not yet charged or awaiting trial. They should not be part of your statistic and the pool that the exonerated should be compared to.

  • Tully

    J$, I am sorry you did not read carefully enough to see that I actually made all of your relevant points, including differentiating between the convicted and the larger group of incracerated and pointing out that those released by DNA testing are a subset, not THE set of those released.

    Please do try to avoid conflating “ACTUALLY innocent” with the technical legal definition of “exonerated.” As a current IL case on point illustrates all too well, they are not even remotely the same thing. And the failures of law enforcement and prosecutor’s offices in DNA cases swing both ways. Don’t ask us to cry for James Ealy.

  • http://none J$

    “Don’t ask us to cry for James Ealy.” Lets cut out the snark. I don’t think there is any reason to create a straw man argument from the Ealy case when the focus is on arriving at an accurate number of wrongful convictions. Nevertheless I’ll take the bait. Perhaps a lower, “preponderance” standard might grant you more convictions in criminal cases and get Ealy in prison on the first go around, but you will also see the rate of innocent people in prison also going up. Then you have cases where the real culprit is out there preying on pregnant women while an innocent man sits in prison. Now we have three victims: the innocent man in prison, the woman and her baby. Your call.

    DNA exoneration cases have resulted in the true suspect/culprit being identified 122 times. Does that mean that because we don’t have the “true suspect or culprit” in the remainder of DNA exoneration cases that the exoneree isn’t ACTUALLY innocent? To coin a term “ACTUAL innocence,” opens the door to further speculation and inaccuracy. The level of evidence people will require for one to be innocent will vary considerably, that is why defendants do not have to prove their innocence, the State rather must prove their guilt, if the state cannot do that, we as a society have no right to strip away a persons rights.