Trigger warning for rape. Note: rape apologist bullshit in the comments is NOT ALLOWED.
Slate has a fascinating article about how Virginia has DNA evidence that may prove that dozens of men were convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In September 2004, the governor of Virginia ordered a random audit of 31 criminal cases when a trove of old biological evidence was found; as it happens, those 31 criminal cases included two rapists who didn’t actually commit the rape. In late 2005, the governor, kind of embarrassed by the “shit, we accidentally convicted the wrong people” thing, ordered that every sample obtained between 1973 and 1988 be rechecked.
Virginia’s program is highly mysterious: however, sources suggest that more than seventy people have been proven not to convict the crime they were accused of. However, only a handful of the falsely convicted have received the exonerations they deserve. Two people have been formally exonerated; one man, deceased, has had his name cleared of the rape he didn’t commit; a fourth is currently being processed.
The problem? The Department of Forensic Science was in charge of notifying prosecutors and police. Lawyers who were in charge of notifying the accused people that they were being retested were told not to explain the letter, which was written in legal jargon, so most people had no idea what it meant and were just freaked out that the state was apparently reopening their cases. Jonathan Sheldon, a lawyer, has devoted a lot of effort to getting the seventy names and tracking down people who were exonerated to tell them what’s going on.
What strikes me about this story is the true epidemic of false rape accusations: not people who pretend that consensual sex is rape, nor people who make up that someone had sex with them, but people who were legitimately raped and accused the wrong person. There are lots of reasons why someone might be mistaken about the identity of their rapist: eyewitness evidence is notoriously unreliable. Some circumstances around rapes– from being passed out to being very drunk or high, from the stress of being a rape survivor to being raped by an acquaintance or stranger– may make identification even more difficult.
Not only is this bad from the “an innocent person is imprisoned” point of view, it’s also bad because a rapist has gone free. And since most rapes are committed by repeat rapists, it’s likely the rapist went on to rape again. On a practical level, the misidentification of rapists (along with people who have committed other crimes, such as murder) is much easier to eliminate than other forms of false accusation.
In the United States, The Innocence Project has been working to exonerate people who have been accused of crimes they didn’t commit: over 250 people have been exonerated due to DNA evidence since 1989. Only four of the exonerated people were women, because men are more likely to commit and be convicted for sex crimes or violent crimes. They also lobby for reforms to confession, eyewitness identification, evidence preservation, etc. that can make sure that the mostly men who are accused of crimes they did not commit can get justice.
Have I mentioned how much I fucking love that organization? I fucking love that organization.