In a statistic that is both gratifying and horrifying, an Army veteran from Chicago is the 200th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit New York-based legal clinic.
That's gratifying because justice long denied to innocents like Jerry Miller, 48, and the 199 others who were exonerated before him finally has been served. But Miller's good news is also horrifying in the questions it raises about flaws in our nation's criminal justice system.
For one thing, only 10 percent of felonies produce any biological evidence that can be tested for DNA, said lawyer Barry Scheck, who co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992 to help prisoners prove their innocence through DNA evidence.
A closer look at the 200 exonerations produces an unsettling view of the mistakes that can made on the way to a conviction. Seventy-seven percent of the convictions resulted from mistaken identity. Almost two-thirds involved faulty scientific evidence. About a fourth involved false confessions or incriminating statements, and 15 percent involved incorrect information from informants.
One type of case most likely to leave DNA evidence is rape, which amounted to 123 of the 200 exonerations. Rape is a crime that also reveals the most evidence of racial bias.
Only 12 percent of sexual assaults are between a victim of one race and an assailant of another, according to Justice Department statistics, yet 64 percent of the 200 exonerated convicts were black males convicted of raping white females.
"The most endangered person to be in America is a black man accused of raping a white woman," Scheck told me in a telephone interview.
Of course, such stereotypes can cut both ways, as revealed in the exoneration of three former Duke University lacrosse players of a rape that apparently never happened. Major media and many of the rest of us, including me, found it all too easy to believe the overzealous prosecutor's scenario of privileged white college boys taking criminal advantage of a poor black woman who was working her way through college as a stripper.
"This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed," said Reade Seligmann, one of the cleared Duke students. "If it is possible for law enforcement officials to systematically railroad us with no evidence whatsoever, it is frightening to think what they could do to those who do not have the resources to defend themselves."
So it is. Nothing concentrates the mind around the subject of justice like the prospect of being falsely convicted.
"I am not angry," Jerry Miller told Chicago Tribune reporter Maurice Possley before a Cook County court set aside Miller's conviction Monday. "I'm not swept under the rug anymore."
Unfortunately, too many other cases do get swept under the rug, without the advantages of big money or a blue-ribbon team of defense lawyers.
Gary Dotson was one of the first DNA exonerations in this country, in 1989, when tests showed he had not committed a rape for which he had been convicted in a Cook County court, even though his accuser recanted years earlier. Since then, DNA use has led to other reforms, such as a national federal DNA database, the videotaping of interrogations and changes in lineup procedures to avoid mistaken identifications.
Even so, we still show a troubling tendency to jail innocent people. Any single case of jailing the innocent and letting the guilty run free is too many.
Scheck would like to see DNA databases and videotaped interrogations for all felonies, not just murders, which is the case in many states. Too many DNA backlogs also mean evidence sits around too long, allowing culprits to commit more crimes.
At the same time, the national debate is only beginning as to whether too much DNA evidence can be gathered and stored too often. Civil libertarians justifiably fear that too much DNA information will be available to too many people for questionable reasons.
Nevertheless, in this new twist in the debate over privacy versus crime-fighting, it's hard to argue against the use of information that can stop, say, a serial killer from striking again. That debate will go on. For now, we should make sure that we don't leave valuable evidence sitting on a shelf.