How Many Innocents in Prison?

The thing that makes this country special, the highest, best virtue we inherited from the Founding Fathers, is our belief that there is such a thing as essential human rights, and that government is merely a means of securing those rights. Because of that, the state can’t (legitimately) argue that its own needs take priority over the rights of individual citizens. We fail to live up to that ideal on a fairly regular basis, but the ideal remains. It’s a target, a goal, something to guide our efforts and illuminate our dreams, if not always our waking reality.

Anyway, I think it’s important to think about what DNA testing has taught us in this area. Through an historical accident we’ve been given the opportunity to retroactively identify cases in which the state has made horrible mistakes, wrongly denying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to innocent people in the name of an expedient criminal justice system.

A couple of items floated by me recently that I thought were interesting. First, an op-ed piece from UMich law professor Samel R. Gross: Weeding out the innocents. If you’re feeling frisky (or if the LA Times is resistant to bugmenot-supplied login credentials), you can read Gross’s academic study on the same subject: Exonerations in the United States 1989 through 2003.

For a more-personal, less-statistical approach to the issue, I also recommend NPR’s reporting on a particular case and its aftermath: Larry Peterson: Beyond Exoneration.

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