NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 31, 2006

The media leads many Americans to believe there are scores of wrongly convicted felons. This view is simply not true, says Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.

Marquis cites a study of exonerations from 1989 to 2003, covering robbery to capital murder, led by Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan. Gross and his team were able to document only 340 inmates who were eventually freed. (They counted cases where defendants were retried after an initial conviction and subsequently found not guilty as "exonerations.") Yet, despite the relatively small number his research came up with, Gross says he is certain that far more innocents languish undiscovered in prison.

Marquis says we should give the professor the benefit of the doubt and even assume that he understated the number of innocents by roughly a factor of 10, so that instead of 340 there were 4,000 people in prison who weren't involved in the crime in any way.

  • During that same 15 years, there would have been more than 15 million felony convictions across the country.
  • That would make the error rate .027 percent -- or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.

Most industries would like to claim such a record of efficiency. And while, of course, people's lives are far more important than widgets, we have an entire appeals court system intended to intervene in those few cases where the innocent are in jeopardy, says Marquis.

A larger issue, however, is whether those who influence the culture, like an enormous television network, have a moral responsibility to keep the facts straight regardless of their thirst for drama. The justice system is admittedly a work in progress, but the media exaggerates the rate of wrongfully accused. Americans should worry more about the wrongfully freed than the wrongfully convicted, says Marquis.

Source: Joshua Marquis, "The Innocent and the Shammed," the New York Times, January 26, 2006.

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