"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
About the Justice Brandeis Law Project<
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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 280 prisoners—this tragedy has taken on a very human face.
The Justice Brandeis Law Project is a member of the Innocence Network, an international network of innocence projects—most of which are modeled after the Innocence Project founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Cardozo School of Law in 1992.
The Justice Brandeis Law Project, however, is different. 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 two compelling cases, and will be reporting our findings through publications and broadcasts. We also help find qualified defense attorneys when the evidence suggests the case should move forward.
Student involvement. Brandeis students 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.
Learning from cases in which the criminal justice system has made mistakes—sometimes fatal mistakes—innocence projects around the country have identified a number of factors common in wrongful convictions. These include 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 November 2011, there have been 280 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).
- 10% of America’s 2 million prisoners may have been wrongfully convicted, suggesting that 200,000 innocent people may be in prison, according to the National Institute of Justice (1996).
- During the past 15 years, more than 28,500 non-death row inmates would have been exonerated if criminal justice reformers like innocence projects “reviewed prison sentences with the same level of care we devote to death sentences”(Gross, 2004).
- 17 of the first 273 people exonerated through DNA to date served time on death row (innocenceproject.org).
- 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).
- 34 individuals have been exonerated in Massachusetts; 9 of them were exonerated by DNA evidence and the remaining 24 were freed by other means.
- Despite the state’s liberal reputation, wrongful convictions are a serious problem in Massachusetts. Scholars estimate that between 0.5 and 4% of convictions are incorrect. Using the lowest estimate, Boston University Law School Professor Stanley Z. Fisher (2002) estimated that 94 innocent people were likely convicted in FY 2000 alone.
- Massachusetts has three projects working on cases of likely wrongful conviction. These are the Schuster Institute's Justice Brandeis Law Project, The New England Innocence Project (NEIP), and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Innocence Program.
- The exoneration of Kenneth Waters is told in the film, "Conviction." In this case, NEIP and New York Innocence Project attorneys worked with Kenneth’s sister, Betty Anne Waters, who got her GED and put herself through college and law school so she could help free her brother from prison.
Sources: “Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial,” National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, 1996; “Convictions of Innocent Persons in Massachusetts: An Overview,” Boston University Prof. Stanley Z. Fisher, 2002; “Exonerations In The United States 1989 Through 2003,” University of Michigan Prof. Samuel Gross, 2004; The Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org; “250 Exonerated, Too Many Wrongfully Convicted,” Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, February 2010.
Last page update: October 28, 2013
© 2011-2013 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. All rights reserved.