The Austin Chronicle

The Problem of Wrongful Conviction

By Jordan Smith, May 21, 2012, 9:54am, Newsdesk

A joint project of the University of Michigan and Northwestern law schools has created the country's largest database of exonerations, profiling online the stories of nearly 900 exonerees, and providing greater context to the problem of wrongful conviction in the U.S.

Although many of the DNA exonerations that make news in Texas, and across the country, come in rape or sexual assault cases, the registry makes clear that false convictions happen in nearly every type of case – and for a variety of different reasons. The online report and registry includes 58 exonerations for drug, tax, white collar or other non-violent offenses, 102 exonerations in child sex abuse cases, and 129 who were convicted of crimes that never happened. Indeed, the registry editor Samuel Gross, a professor at Michigan, found that different problems plagued individual types of cases: In murder cases perjured testimony – usually by witnesses who said they participated in the crime or witnessed it – played a lead role in the wrongful convictions; in rape cases, eyewitness ID mistakes play a major role, especially in cross-race identifications, reports Gross.

Although there are just under 900 exonerees profiled on the new site, creators say more than 2,000 people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989 – including more than 1,000 that were part of so-called "group exonerations," that came in response to 13 separate police corruption scandals across the country. Those cases are detailed in a report attached to the registry. The registry includes 84 exonerees from Texas, and eight from Travis County – including Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who have not been legally exonerated, but against whom all charges related to the infamous yogurt shop murders were dismissed after their convictions were overturned by the courts and new DNA evidence linked to an unknown male cast serious doubt on the state's case against them.

The project demonstrates that wrongful convictions cane come in all kinds of cases and for a number of different reasons. And the project creators help that the registry might ultimately help to correct a pervasive problem of the criminal justice system. "The more we learn about false convictions, the better we'll be at preventing them – or if that fails, at finding and correcting them as best we can after the fact," says Gross.

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