Damon Thibodeaux of Louisiana has become the 300th wrongly convicted person and 18th death-row inmate exonerated in the U.S. substantially on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. He was released after what the Associated Press calls “an extraordinary five-year joint reinvestigation with defense lawyers concluded that the murder confession was clearly false.” The case signals the opening of a new, more complex phase in the use of such material in attempts to right the course of justice.
It's clear that there is no DNA evidence in the vast majority of cases. In the first 15 years of DNA testing, almost all exonerations fit a basic pattern in which the defendant was accused of rape, or both rape and murder — because sexual assaults are the crimes in which DNA is most likely to be recovered. In hindsight, those were the low-hanging fruit of DNA exonerations. Now their numbers are declining. In their place are convictions like Thibodeaux's in which serious doubts have been raised but little clear DNA or other scientific forensic evidence exists to conclusively prove guilt or innocence.