History and Background
Twenty years ago, the claim that innocent people had been wrongly convicted of serious crimes would have been “treated with general incredulity.” By 2001, however, a “Harris Poll found 94 percent of Americans believed that innocent defendants are sometimes executed.”1 How did we get to this point? Many observers point their fingers at DNA testing, saying the exonerations that came to light in the late 1990s made it impossible to deny that the criminal justice system makes mistakes. But this was hardly the first evidence of erroneous convictions; that line of research goes back more than eighty years now and possibly much longer, depending on whom you believe.
There sometimes is a tendency to see wrongful convictions as a legal issue. That is, the causes of wrongful convictions rest with officers and agents of a legal process; the existence of such errors represents the denial of important legal protections; and the response to mistaken convictions is legal reforms pressed by legal activists and adopted by lawmakers or jurists. Such a view, however, misses the broader, political context in which policy issues are identified, advanced, and resolved in America. Erroneous convictions have become a cause célèbre, not simply because there now is incontrovertible evidence of innocence, but also because changes in political and social life have raised the salience of the issue. In turn, a legal and political constituency arose to demand the resolution of this problem, and people from across the political spectrum—most notably, traditional conservatives—came to support reform.
Nor can we ignore the issue's connection to the death penalty, where the stakes of error are much higher than for other felonies. Indeed, the fact that many of the first erroneous convictions were found in capital cases propelled the issue ahead at a sometimes breakneck pace in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But no one should be fooled into believing that wrongful convictions exist only in capital matters; in fact, the