An exoneration means that we know for a fact that someone who was once convicted of a crime did not actually do that crime. Not everyone who is acquitted or who has their criminal case overturned is considered exonerated. It’s not a dispute about the evidence. It’s a matter of truth and law that the person is innocent.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a person is only considered exonerated when the person has received an acquittal, a dismissal, or a pardon for all charges based on actual innocence, which is supported by new evidence that was unavailable at trial or before a guilty plea, which shows the person is innocent.
Exonerations often come about because of new access to DNA evidence. For example, in many cases evidence that was collected at a crime scene is later found to contain DNA evidence that modern science can work with. When this happens, it may be possible to exclude someone. A semen sample from a rape victim may show, for example, that the person convicted of the rape could not be guilty.
Other evidence that can lead to an exoneration is a finding that a witness lied or was mistaken, that evidence was fabricated, that the defendant’s confession was coerced, that the defendant’s defense was unconstitutionally inadequate, that the prosecution was the result of hysteria or that no crime was actually committed. There are a wide variety of reasons that a conviction may be overturned.
The National Registry of Exonerations counts exonerations dating back to 1989. Since then, at least 3,176 people in the U.S. have been exonerated. Combined, those people spent 27,200 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
How many exonerations have occurred in Tennessee?
The Tennessee Innocence Project (TIP) estimates that there have been at least 2,980 people exonerated in the U.S., although it doesn’t say when that count begins. Of those 2,980 people, 28 were convicted of crimes in Tennessee and three were exonerated by the TIP in 2021 alone.
In 2021, the TIP says, it received and investigated 125 new claims of wrongful convictions from 41 out of Tennessee’s 95 counties. That’s only 125 people out of the many, many people who may have been wrongly convicted.
Why should we suspect that this is just the tip of the iceberg? Most defendants – approximately 95% of all criminal defendants – plead guilty. When they plead guilty, they give up much of their ability to appeal their convictions, even if they are wrongful.
The fact is that innocent people plead guilty and are convicted routinely. Many of them lack the resources to appeal their convictions and pursue their claims of innocence and are left to seek assistance from the TIP or Innocence Project affiliates elsewhere.