Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Despite the rapidly growing innocence movement, five unusual innocence cases have escaped the attention of most commentators: in Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, courts have recently exonerated wrongfully convicted defendants following their deaths in prison. This article identifies this extension of the innocence movement and argues that posthumous exonerations give courts a rare opportunity - seized upon in the 2009 posthumous exoneration of Timothy Cole in Texas - to make a detailed investigation of the causes leading to a defendant’s wrongful conviction. The article argues that these exonerations are important not only in providing justice for victims, communities, and the families of criminal defendants, but also because of their potential contribution to the effort to discover the causes of - and ultimately prevent - wrongful convictions. Legislatures should therefore expand the currently tenuous jurisdictional and procedural bases for posthumous exonerations, perhaps using the quasi-inquisitorial judicial model followed in Cole. This is particularly important in states without innocence commissions, which are the best suited institutions to conduct this sort of inquiry. Recognition of the errors that led to an innocent defendant’s conviction - whether the defendant is now alive or dead - is essential in preventing the future conviction of innocent defendants.