Wednesday, May 4, 2011
The DNA exonerations of the past 20 years have heightened awareness of the problem of wrongful convictions. As the number of exonerations expands, and increasingly includes exonerations in cases with no DNA evidence, just what counts as an "exoneration," and who can legitimately claim to be "innocent," becomes increasingly important and controversial. The definitions are important for research and policy reasons, for they define the pool of cases that can be studied to learn about the causes of error and to generate reform proposals. They are also important at the individual case level, both for defining who is entitled to relief from a conviction, and the extent to which such individuals are entitled to reclaim their good names in full.
But innocence, it turns out, is a complex concept. The purity and simplicity of the story of the clear DNA exoneration continues to have power, but that story alone cannot sustain the Innocence Movement. It is too narrow. It fails to accommodate the vast majority of innocent people in our justice system. It fails to embrace innocence in its full complexity.
This article explores what "exoneration" and "innocence" mean in the criminal justice system today. It concludes that there are many standards of innocence, dependent on whether innocence is being identified for research or litigation purposes, and depending on the jurisdiction and nature of the proceedings. But it argues that, in the end, for virtually all purposes, innocence must be understood under the objective rules that have long governed the criminal justice system. In the end, under those rules, the presumption of innocence fully defines innocence, absent proof of guilt established beyond a reasonable doubt in court. This article thus argues for a fuller embrace of the constitutional values embedded in the presumption of innocence.