Russell Hebets Jan. 24, 2011

As a criminal defense lawyer I’m often an object of curiosity at social gatherings. Strangers find out my profession and always have a litany of questions. How can you defend criminals? Don’t you think those people belong in jail? Aren’t you scared of your clients? These may seem like simple questions, but they are actually incredibly complex. Chances are we’re not going to get to the bottom of it over cocktails at a party, but here’s at least a piece of it.

Police officers, detectives, investigators, and district attorneys are human just like the rest of us. If you have ever had a bad waiter at a restaurant, a mechanic botch a car repair, or been misdiagnosed by a doctor or nurse, you know that people make mistakes. Human imperfection extends to the people investigating and prosecuting crimes as well.

Prior to 1989 there wasn’t a lot of data to back up the belief that innocent people were being arrested and jailed, but that changed with the advent of DNA technology. The first DNA exoneration occurred in 1989 and since that time there have been 266 post-conviction DNA exonerations. The average term of incarceration served by innocent individuals wrongly convicted is 13 years, and 17 people had been sentenced to death before DNA evidence proved them innocent. We can only guess as to how many innocent people were executed or died in prison prior to widespread DNA testing.

DNA evidence is generally only available in very serious cases. We’re talking about murder, rape, assaults involving serious bodily injury, etc. We know that tens of thousands of criminal suspects have been cleared prior to their conviction or even prior to charges being filed based on DNA evidence, and we’ll probably never know how many innocent people are jailed daily for crimes they didn’t commit simply because DNA evidence is not available. Is everyone accused of a crime guilty? – Absolutely not. See you at the next cocktail party.