The Innocence Project

Monday, Aug 30, 2010

Interviewer: I think many Americans have this perception that our legal system is basically sound and trustworthy, and that wrongful convictions are anomalous. How right or wrong is that perception? To what extent do the 258 wrongful convictions to date reflect the scope of the problem?

Peter Neufeld: The 258 figure is unquestionably just the tip of the iceberg. In many of our cases, the biological evidence has been lost or destroyed in the intervening years, so clearly our exoneration numbers would be much, much, much higher if we could bring more cases to lab. Over the years, our exclusion rate [in which the DNA result excludes the convict as a possible perpetrator of the crime] has been about 50 percent. That's not to suggest that the false conviction rate is 50 percent, because obviously we have a self-selecting data set of people who write to us and claim to be innocent.

Similarly, for 20 years, the FBI has been keeping data on cases that get sent to them by local law enforcement agencies for testing. These are cases where a prime suspect has already been identified based on other kinds of evidence—a confession, an ID, circumstantial evidence, whatever. Over the years, they've had a 25 percent exclusion rate; one-quarter of all initial prime suspects are excluded based on DNA. Now, that, too, doesn't mean the wrongful conviction rate is 25 percent, because some percentage of those cases would have been either dismissed or acquitted even if there hadn't been DNA testing (although the acquittal rate is very low in this country). But what these numbers tell you is that, my God, there are a lot of people in prison from before DNA evidence who are innocent.

Interviewer: Are those numbers dwindling now that DNA testing is routine?

Peter Neufeld: Well, it's certainly better to have DNA testing than not, but it's a misperception to imagine that it's going to solve the problem. People think, "Oh, now we have DNA evidence, so this issue will gradually disappear." The truth is it doesn't disappear, because you can only use DNA testing in a small minority of violent crimes. If there's a drive-by shooting, there is no blood left behind. If there's a robbery, there is no semen left behind. In many crimes, police departments have to rely on less reliable means of investigation to decide who to prosecute.

That's why we have these recommendations for reforms, because we know that DNA alone is not going to solve the problem. Unless we change some of these other root causes of wrongful conviction and make the process more reliable, we will continue to wrongfully convict people at alarming rates.

Reasonable Doubt: Innocence Project Co-Founder Peter Neufeld on Being Wrong, August 17, 2010, (The Innocence Project).