Thirty Years of Innocence

Wrongful Convictions and Exonerations in the United States, 1989-2018


  • Robert Norris George Mason University
  • James Acker University at Albany, SUNY
  • Catherine Bonventre Guilford College
  • Allison Redlich George Mason University



wrongful conviction, miscarriage of justice, exoneration, innocence project, criminal justice


Systematic reporting of data about wrongful conviction cases in the United States typically begins with 1989, the year of the country’s first post-conviction, DNA-based exonerations. Year-end 2018 thus concludes a full thirty years of information and marks a propitious time to take stock. In this article, we provide an overview of known exonerations, innocence advocacy, and wrongful conviction-related policy reforms in the U.S. during these three decades. First, we provide a brief history of wrongful convictions in the U.S. before turning to the modern era of innocence. We describe the key sources of data pertaining to wrongful convictions and exonerations. Then, using case data from the National Registry of Exonerations, we offer a detailed analysis of national and state-by-state trends in exonerations, including annual totals, DNA- and non-DNA-exonerations, and capital case exonerations. Our examination includes factors corresponding to sources of error, state death-penalty status, and regional differences. We then discuss innocence advocacy organizations, with a particular focus on Centurion Ministries and members of the Innocence Network. This is followed by an examination of state-by-state trends in innocence-related policy reforms on key issues as identified by the Innocence Project. The final section of the article discusses the many important matters we do not yet know about wrongful convictions and poses thoughts, questions, and ideas for continued scholarship focusing on miscarriages of justice. The Appendix provides state-by-state summaries of select information relating to wrongful convictions and innocence reforms.




How to Cite

Norris, R., Acker, J., Bonventre, C., & Redlich, A. (2020). Thirty Years of Innocence: Wrongful Convictions and Exonerations in the United States, 1989-2018. The Wrongful Conviction Law Review, 1(1), 2–58.