A fascinating investigation by Hella Winston in the Daily Beast, looking at 263 of the 2,034 known exonerations in the United States since 1989 – based on criteria chosen by Winston: “did not hinge on DNA evidence…; murder cases because murder typically has no statute of limitations, and therefore can be prosecuted at any time…: the past 11 years on the assumption that it might be easier to get information about relatively recently vacated convictions than those overturned several decades ago.” The takeaway: 263 overturned murder convictions but only 16 new suspects charged. Why?
- In 24 cases, the true perpetrators—determined either by credible confessions and/or objective evidence—were either dead or in prison, serving a long sentence for a different crime, sometimes in another state. While neither outcome represents justice for the victims in the wrongful conviction cases, those murderers are nonetheless “off the streets.”
- In 8 other cases, the true perpetrators appear to be beyond the reach of law enforcement because of immunity or plea deals given to them by prosecutors (these cases tended to involve violence perpetrated by gangs).
- In another 7 cases, the person who was wrongfully convicted was convicted along with at least one or more others who, it seems fairly clear, were actually responsible.
As for there rest, Winston argues:
- Evidence grows cold as time passes.
- Prosecutors don’t want to admit defeat by going after a second defendant for an old crime. They don’t have much credibility when they have to concede they got it wrong the first time around.
- Defendants who are charged decades after an old crime typically point to the evidence introduced at the first trial and say to jurors: there’s your reasonable doubt right there