Putting It All Together
The year 2009 will mark two decades since the first DNA exoneration. Over that time we seem to have reached the point at which virtually all the studies of wrongful convictions have come to similar conclusions. Among the most recent reports were those led by Professor Samuel Gross and the law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky. Gross and a team of researchers published their findings in 2005, summarizing the sources of error in 328 wrongful convictions between 1989 and 2003.1 Although most of the innocent people were convicted of minor crimes, the Gross team showed that the majority of exonerations have occurred in murder and rape cases. Nearly 80 percent of rape exonerations were the result of DNA testing, but because biological evidence is typically less often available in murder cases, only about a fifth of the murder exonerations were based on DNA. Interestingly, the study identified eyewitness misidentification—particularly in cross-racial identifications—as a leading cause of mistaken convictions in rape cases. Indeed, even though rapes of white women by black men comprise less than 10 percent of reported rapes, these cases accounted for half the total number of rape exonerations. In murder cases, the Gross study seemed to point at false confessions and perjury as the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
The findings by Gross's research team, though representing excellent research, do not suggest significantly new sources of wrongful convictions, as compared with prior studies. Nor does a 2006 report conducted by the law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro, under the supervision of Maryland's former U.S. senator, Joseph Tydings. Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) asked Tydings and his colleagues to compare Virginia's capital justice system with the recommendations of Illinois's Ryan Commission. Despite praising Virginia for “significant strides in some areas,” the report concluded that the state had met only