Since 1973, over 100 people have been exonerated and released from death row. Wrongful convictions are not limited to capital cases, where the heightened attention and greater available resources may ensure more careful consideration of the charges and evidence. Innocent defendants charged with other crimes may face worse odds.
When an airplane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board has responsibility to examine what went wrong and how such a disaster can be prevented in the future. Similarly, when the criminal justice system fails in its most critical functions - convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent - the government should step in to determine the causes of the failure and identify appropriate reforms. For this reason, experts in the criminal justice system have advocated the establishment of "innocence commissions" in jurisdictions where wrongful convictions have occurred. All citizens have an interest in such examinations. When an innocent person is convicted, many people suffer. The innocent person is wrongly incarcerated and perhaps put to death. The real perpetrator often remains free to prey on society. And, if an exoneration occurs and the real perpetrator is identified, the victims and their families must relive the crime through any retrial.
Canada has long had formal processes to investigate wrongful convictions. In the United States, jurisdictions have begun to establish innocence commissions to investigate erroneous convictions and recommend policy reforms to address systemic problems. Recently, however, Virginia has begun to reform its criminal justice system, thanks to the Virginia State Crime Commission and lawmakers in both political parties. In 2002, voters approved a referendum to allow defendants an opportunity to introduce exculpatory DNA evidence post-conviction. Additional reforms signed into law by Governor Mark Warner in 2004 give defendants one opportunity to seek a "petition for a writ of actual innocence" based upon newly discovered evidence that was unavailable at trial. Most recently, the State Crime Commission released a report on mistaken eyewitness identification, issuing six recommendations to improve the procedures for conducting lineups in Virginia.
The good faith and hard work of the Commonwealth's prosecutors and police, and the fine, national reputation of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, has not been enough to minimize the risk of wrongful convictions. With this in mind, three organizations came together in 2003 to create the Innocence Commission for Virginia (ICVA), a nonprofit, nongovernmental, nonpartisan project dedicated to supplementing the ongoing work in the Commonwealth through recommendations to strengthen the reliability of its criminal justice system and to reduce the likelihood of future wrongful convictions. The ICVA's advisory board includes former prosecutors and defense counsel, notable public officials, and members of law enforcement and public interest groups, among others.