On death row in Illinois, facing execution for a brutal rape and murder, Ronald Jones had reached what seemed like the end of the road.
Detectives had interrogated him for eight hours and reported that he had confessed in detail. They said he described the crime scene and how he “cut” the victim “a few times” with a knife – she had been stabbed four times. A detective recalled that Jones walked them through the crime scene, showing exactly where the stabbing took place.
The forensics available back then?ABO blood-typing?placed Jones within a part of the population that could have committed the time. At trial, Jones recanted his confession, but he was convicted. He lost all of his appeals.
Finally, the trial judge denied his last ditch effort to prove his innocence with newly available DNA tests, saying, “What issue could possibly be resolved by DNA testing?”
Jones might very well have been executed right then. But the Illinois Supreme Court intervened and ordered DNA testing. The results excluded Ronald Jones and he was exonerated after 13 years behind bars.
The transcripts from Jones' trial raise several problems. How could Jones have confessed in such detail? Jones testified at trial that a detective “was telling me blood stains on the floor and different clothing that was found inside the abandoned building,” and that the victim “was killed with a knife, and she was stabbed, three or four times.”
Perhaps Jones had been fed the facts and could confess in detail because the police told him what to say.
Forensics were also presented inaccurately at the trial. There was nothing unscientific about the ABO blood typing used, but the forensic analyst exaggerated the evidence when explaining it to the jury. Since nothing different from the victim's own blood type was detected, the forensics had actually been totally inconclusive.
Ronald Jones' contaminated confession and invalid forensics might seem like a terrible accident, but nothing more, if he was alone.
However, when I reviewed the cases of the other exonerees I found the same errors repeated over and over. Exonerees served an average of 13 years in prison and many others faced difficulties getting DNA tests.
Forty falsely confessed and, like Jones, all but two had reportedly confessed in detail. They were innocent and those confessions were likely also contaminated.
The largest group of exonerees, 76%, were misidentified by eyewitnesses, and by unsound eyewitness identification procedures that are still commonly used likely played a decisive role.
Over half were convicted based in part on unreliable and invalid forensic analysis.
You can see for yourself how wrongful convictions can happen on a new interactive online widget called “Getting it Right,” which I co-produced with the Innocence Project. The widget includes videos, accounts of cases, records, and research on how wrongful convictions happen and how they can be prevented.
After his exoneration, Ronald Jones commented, “Had it not been for DNA, who knows about me.”
He was lucky in one way: DNA testing cannot be used in the vast majority of criminal cases. To prevent wrongful convictions, it is not enough to do DNA testing more often. Instead, we need to carefully consider improvements to the accuracy of our criminal procedures.
We need to get it right.
Brandon L. Garrett is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and the author of “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” in which he explores old records to find out what went wrong in the cases of the first 250 people exonerated by DNA tests. The “Getting it Right” website can be viewed on the Innocence Project website.. Brandon welcomes comments from readers.