20 people on death row have been cleared by DNA evidence

It’s everyone’s nightmare: being wrongfully accused of a crime. If you’re convicted, it gets even worse. You know you did nothing wrong. It all feels horribly unfair and unjust, like the world is crashing down around you.

This is far too common in the United States, and DNA evidence has helped to expose it over the last few decades. In 1989, DNA evidence was used to exonerate a “convicted criminal” for the first time. For one person, the nightmare ended.

Since then, 347 people have been cleared with DNA evidence. Perhaps most frightening of all is the fact that 20 of them were on death row.

Think about that. Not only are you convicted for something you know you didn’t do, but you’re facing capital punishment. You’re sitting behind bars, waiting for the end, knowing you did nothing to put yourself there.

It’s not a fictional nightmare

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? It sounds like something out of a movie or a novel, something that would never be real. But, for those 20 people, it was all too real.

Yes, they’ve now been cleared, but new questions arise every time someone is exonerated. How many others haven’t been cleared yet? How many have been wrongfully convicted, but the DNA evidence that would clear them either doesn’t exist or wasn’t found? How many people have spent years and years behind bars, as innocent as anyone on the outside?

After all, the statistics show that those who were exonerated served a combined total of 4,730 years. The United States has falsely imprisoned people approximately 20 times as many years as our country has existed. The country is only 240 years old, after all.

Why are people falsely accused?

The reasons for these false convictions vary. In 70 percent of the cases, eyewitnesses picked out the wrong person. In 46 percent of the cases, forensic science was misapplied. In 29 percent of the cases, people pled guilty even though they’d done nothing wrong.

But the reasons why don’t matter nearly as much as the raw stats. Hundreds of people have been cleared, which means there could be hundreds more who are just like them.

The justice system is set up to avoid these mistakes, but it’s clear this doesn’t always work as intended. This is why it is crucial for people to know their rights and defense options – no matter what they’re accused of.