DNA Delivers Justice to the Wrongfully Convicted

Cook County, Illinois prosecutors are reopening the investigation of a 20-year-old sexual assault and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Five teenagers were convicted of raping and killing young Cateresa Matthews in suburban Chicago in 1991. After almost 20 years in prison, DNA evidence may now prove their innocence.

The Cook County District Attorney’s Office reopened the case after two key witnesses recanted their earlier statements implicating the five young men. In early 2011, DNA preserved from the crime scene was retested and matched the profile of a convicted sex offender. That man was on parole near Cateresa Maathews’ home at the time of her sexual assault and murder. The DNA did not match any of the five convicted men.

This case merely illustrates a national epidemic of wrongful convictions and subsequent DNA exoneration. DNA has exonerated 273 wrongfully convicted prisoners in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, exoneration can take decades. The Innocence Project reports that the average exoneree has served 13 years in prison before being cleared. Tragically, some innocent people have waited more than 30 years for the truth to come out.

Why Wrongful Convictions?

Several factors can contribute to a wrongful conviction, including misidentification by witnesses, false confessions, unreliable informant testimony and improper forensic science. Additionally, DNA fingerprinting has only been used in the courtroom since the mid-1980s. Even then, its use was not widespread so biological evidence was not properly collected and stored.

Though the American justice system is one of the fairest in the world, it is more concerned about fairness in the process than it is fairness in the outcome. That means innocent people are sometimes wrongfully convicted. However, with advances in forensic science and greater scrutiny of criminal convictions, fewer innocent people will have to suffer decades before someone believes their true story.

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