Let's call 2014 "the year of the wrongfully convicted." Why? According to figures released last week by the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 125 wrongful convictions were overturned in 2014. This smashed the previous single-year exoneration records of 91 (in both 2012 and 2013 according to recently revised numbers) and has serious implications that we should not ignore.
First, we must recognize the human cost. Each of the 125 individuals suffered a terrible injustice. Six of those whose convictions were reversed had been sentenced to death, and each had served more than 30 years in prison. Imagine living in a cage for 39 years, waiting to be executed for a crime you did not commit. This happened to Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman of Ohio. Though most exonerations were not so life-and-death dramatic, every wrongfully convicted person had days, months and years stolen from them.
But beyond individual stories, 2014's record-breaking number of reversals tells the tale of a system overwhelmed. The sheer volume of uncovered wrongful convictions puts the lie to the widespread belief that our criminal justice system has solved its most basic problems. After all, DNA testing has been routine for more than 20 years. Many predicted that this innocence-proving technology would in short order clear all the nation's wrongfully convicted. Yet the reversals keep on coming. How is this possible?