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Innocent People on Death Row


Campaigners against the death penalty in America are using evidence from recent DNA tests to show that innocent people are being convicted, imprisoned and even killed as a result of a crime they didn’t commit. Since the first American prisoner was cleared by tests and DNA evidence in 1989, a further 200 have been proven to be wrongly convicted.

Charity Pioneered DNA Tests

The Innocence Project is a legal charity in New York that pioneered the use of DNA tests, DNA analysis and DNA evidence to uncover wrongful convictions. The Times newspaper recently reported on one such case – that of Byron Halsey, who almost received the death penalty. He spent 19 years on death row after being found guilty of murdering two children. However, Halsey has now been exonerated for the crime after tests and evidence confirmed another man as the killer. The charity says that his case, and the 201 wrongful convictions they’ve uncovered so far, are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Death Penalty – DNA Trigger Concerns

As well as the concern that innocent people are being convicted of heinous crimes, the DNA tests and evidence also uncover a disturbing truth – that of the 201 exonerated so far by tests, 120 were black. The statistics are of concern as there are fears there is an institutionalised racism at work in the US legal system. The figures show that African-American men were more involved in wrongful convictions for sexual assaults. Those 201 innocent men who have now been exonerated as a result of these tests have served a total of 2,496 years between them.

Exonerated Prisoners

Remarkably, poor evidence convicted many of the innocent men, such as wrong identifications in police line-ups. Now, the use of DNA tests in forensic crime means such mistakes are drastically reduced. Some of the innocent men admitted guilt, even though they were later exonerated by tests. This is explained perhaps by the fact some of the men had mental health issues. Jerry Frank Townsend spent 21 years in prison for six murders and rapes he was later found innocent of committing. He had a mental capacity of an eight-year-old. DNA tests cleared Townsend. The first prisoner to be cleared by tests was a janitor with below-par intelligence convicted for rape and murder. He was cleared by means of DNA analysis in 1989 – when tests were a relatively new science.

However, as it’s thought that only 10% of crimes leave evidence suitable for DNA tests, The Innocent Project fears there could be many more innocent prisoners subjected to a life behind bars, or worse – to the death penalty.

A Hot Topic: The DNA Database

Governments across the world are collecting millions of DNA samples and storing these in a database in order to try and curb crime. Generally, although the majority of DNA profiles are those of active offenders, there are also innocent citizens on the database too. Should you be concerned? More information about the DNA database.

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