How efforts to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners have grown into an energized international movement.
In his debut book, Norris (Government and Justice Studies/Appalachian State Univ.) offers a straightforward, informative overview of the development of the innocence movement, which began with a few lawyers working for the releases of their innocent clients. He profiles several early activists and groups, such as the Centurion Ministries, the Innocence Project, and the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, highlighting some of the cases that drew their attention. Those cases involved prisoners whose innocence was confirmed largely through DNA testing, which allowed for a breakthrough in arguing that convictions be overturned. The lawyers focused not on problems of lawyer error or trial technicalities but only on cases where innocent individuals were incarcerated and sometimes sentenced to death. By 2012, those working in the movement had formed the Innocence Network, which grew to include 70 organizations around the world. Based on interviews with lawyers, law professors, academics, and organization leaders, Norris analyzes the work and impact of the movement, providing a solid departure point for future research. Network organizations, he has discovered, receive nearly 20,000 requests yearly, from which they pursue about one-quarter. The early focus on DNA has evolved into a wider scope: lawyers have found that miscarriages of justice are caused by “eyewitness errors, false confessions, forensic misconduct, prosecutorial and defense issues, jailhouse informants, and racism.” Publicizing these factors has fueled a policy-reform agenda in law enforcement, leading to a change in eyewitness identification procedures, recording of interrogations, better preservation of biological evidence, monitoring of forensic labs, and giving inmates access to post-conviction DNA testing. In addition, Innocence Network lawyers have proposed policies for use in drafting new laws. In 1998, Innocence Project cases led to a moratorium on the death penalty enacted by the governor of Illinois. Within a few years, Norris writes, “innocence was fundamentally changing the death penalty discussion in the United States.”
A useful contribution to an important national conversation about crime and punishment.