"Failing the DNA Test," Michael Blanding and Lindsay Markel, November 20, 2011, The Boston Globe Magazine
WBUR's Radio Boston hosts talk with Schuster Senior Fellow Michael Blanding about DNA testing for prisoners in Massachusetts
- Post-conviction DNA testing in Massachusetts: "Failing the Test"
- Waiting for DNA: More about Massachusetts prisoners claiming innocence who are featured in the article
- Exonerated by DNA: Massachusetts wrongful convictions overturned
- Background: A primer on the Massachusetts DNA access bill
- Underlying issue: No law requiring preservation of crime scene evidence
- Digging deeper: What do exonerations teach us about the criminal justice system?
- Non-DNA cases: What happens if there is no DNA to test?
How do wrongful convictions occur?
- Eyewitness misidentification
- Faulty forensics, or bad science
- False confessions
- Informants and "snitches"
- Bad lawyering or representation in court
- Misconduct by prosecutors or law enforcement
Ethical Inquiry: Is Capital Punishment Ethical? International Center for Ethics, Justice, & Public Life, October 2010
Life After Death Row
Feb. 5, 2013
"At the Death House Door"
The screening of the
documentary "At the
Death House Door"
and the discussion session
with guest speakers the
Rev. Carroll Pickett and
Maurice Possley spotlighted
the heartwrenching subject
of capital punishment in
relation to those who are
wrongfully accused. More>
Sister Helen Prejean
Brandeis Day of Innocence
with Sister Helen Prejean,
was touted as a "resounding success!" More>
The Justice Brandeis Law Project has benefited from the expertise of Dick Lehr, Visiting Journalist-in-Residence in 2007 and Pamela Cytrynbaum, who acted as assistant director for the Institute from 2005-2007.
The Justice Brandeis Law Project (formerly the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project) at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University was established to make a contribution to resolving the untenable ethical, civil and human rights issues created by wrongful convictions.
In the past decade—thanks largely to the advances in DNA testing used to exonerate 329 prisoners—this tragedy has taken on a very human face.
The Justice Brandeis Law Project is different from most wrongful conviction projects. It is one of the few projects around the country that uses journalistic methods as a primary tool. Although we consult with attorneys and academic experts in criminal justice, we depend on investigative reporting techniques to probe cases of likely wrongful conviction because, often, there is no DNA to test.
Using time- and resource-intensive techniques, we dig into the facts of such cases, including examining reams of court documents and police records; reconstructing the crime scene and timeline; and interviewing or re-interviewing witnesses.
Presently, we are investigating several compelling cases, and will be reporting our findings on this website and through publications and broadcasts.
Student involvement. Brandeis University students we hire form an integral part of our work. Student research assistants have offered not just enthusiasm but also great intelligence to help address the issue of wrongful convictions. Most tell us that this work has changed their lives forever. Any student interested in assisting the Justice Brandeis Law Project as a research assistant may apply for a position by completing and submitting this form.
Key elements in wrongful convictions
We learn from cases in which the criminal justice system has made mistakes—sometimes fatal mistakes—eyewitness misidentification, bad lawyering, government misconduct, false confessions, snitches, and bad forensics that defy the scientific method. All have contributed to the imprisonment of innocent people while allowing actual perpetrators to remain free.
Often, issues of race, class, and prejudice conflate to place certain groups at high risk for wrongful arrest, prosecution, and, ultimately, conviction.
We may never know how many innocent people are in prison. But here are some troubling facts about this huge ethical and criminal justice problem, nationally and in our state of Massachusetts.
In the United States:
- As of May 2015, there have been 329 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S. These cases are becoming familiar as more innocent people gain their freedom through post-conviction DNA testing of biological evidence, and are symptomatic of a seriously flawed criminal justice system (innocenceproject.org).
- According to a study published in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, approximately 4.1% of death row inmates were falsely convicted. (Gross et al, 2014).
- The average sentence served by the first 250 exonerees was 13 years. Together, they served a total of approximately 3,160 years (Cardozo, 2010).
- About 70% of those exonerated by DNA testing are members of minority groups (innocenceproject.org).
- In 43% of the first 251 DNA exoneration cases, the real perpetrator of the crime was identified after the wrong person served prison time for it—and after those real perpetrators committed at least 72 more violent crimes before being caught (Innocence Project correspondence, March 2010).
- 40 individuals have been exonerated in Massachusetts; 9 of them were exonerated by DNA evidence and the remaining 31 were freed by other means.