UVA Law's Revamped DNA Exonerations Database Has Answers for Lawyers With Questions

Professor Brandon Garrett is building on research related to his 2011 book, "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," with an updated database capable of advanced searches.

June 28, 2016

An online database hosted by the University of Virginia School of Law that details every case in which DNA helped exonerate an innocent person has been upgraded. The resource, created by UVA Law professor and "Convicting the Innocent" author Brandon Garrett, is now better poised to help researchers, including lawyers who need to access the information for their own cases.

Fine points on the false convictions of Steven Avery, the Englewood Five and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person exonerated by DNA from death row — among hundreds of others — can now be found by doing simple or advanced searches on topics relating to confessions, forensics, eyewitness testimony and post-conviction history. (More)

"The improvements allow one to search these remarkable DNA exoneration cases in a fine-grained way," Garrett said. "Lawyers are often wondering how to challenge bite-mark evidence or eyewitness evidence or confession evidence. Having an opportunity to read about how that evidence can go tragically wrong, and in cases in their jurisdiction, is a powerful tool."

In writing 2011's "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," published by Harvard University Press, Garrett looked at the first 250 cases of innocent persons exonerated by DNA evidence; the revised database now adds 80 more cases. Many of the new details were supplemented by student researchers, including Stephanie Boutsicaris '17, Angela Porter '16, Jack Shirley '15 and Kate Naseef '14. The students have also begun to help Westlaw and Lexis, two widely used legal search tools, flag the people as exonerated on their respective sites.

State and federal courts have cited Garrett's book and innocence research in their decisions. But Garrett said his foremost goal isn't recognition, but helping aid practitioners before decisions are made. Garrett created the original database with the help of the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.

A new book chapter, "Convicting the Innocent Redux," is also linked on the updated database's website. The chapter puts the new data into context, with emphasis on how false confessions and confession contamination contribute to the false conviction problem.

Garrett, who has helped Virginia develop a model police-lineup policy, plans to continue his research on eyewitness memory and ways of improving eyewitness identification procedures as well. He is currently working with Dan Murrie and Sharon Kelley at the Institute of Law Psychiatry & Public Policy, Greg Mitchell and John Monahan on the UVA Law faculty, and Karen Kafadar, the chair of the UVA Department of Statistics, on research designed to improve the reliability of forensic evidence and study how to better use forensics in court.

Garrett is also the author of "Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations," which examines the lenient backroom deals federal prosecutors are increasingly forging with big business. A new book under contract, “The Triumph of Mercy” will examine what can be learned from the national decline in death sentences, and a data website is in the works for this book as well.

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