Binging episodes of Serial or Making A Murderer may be only a guilty pleasure for most, but some experts say the popularity of investigative crime shows can actually be linked to a record high number of exonerations. A study released this week by the National Registry of Exonerations shows 149 wrongfully convicted people were released in 2015 - with 13 of them in Illinois.
Tara Thompson, an attorney with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, said there is definitely a connection between rising numbers of exonerations and the exploding fanbase for true-crime shows. She says these investigative shows are making people realize that mistakes are common in the justice system, even when the accused are given a lawyer and jury trial.
“These kinds of shows that have some kind of entertainment value to them, that promise people a mystery, encourages people to be interested in this issue in a way that regular media attention wouldn’t,” Thompson said, “And more public awareness … leads to more pressure on politicians to think about these cases in a certain way.”
Nationally there are nearly three exonerations a week, according to the study. These exonerations used to be big news, but the Exoneration Project’s Jon Loevy says they’ve become more common because of the advent of DNA testing.
“I think it’s now becoming part of our society, part of our judicial system, and now part of our culture that some convictions are wrongful convictions,” said Loevy. “The public at large has a greater understanding that sometimes people confess to crimes they didn’t commit, sometimes eyewitnesses get it wrong, sometimes people are wrongfully convicted for crimes they didn’t commit.”
Illinois had the third highest rate of exonerations last year. Loevy says the state — and Chicago in particular — have historically had a problem in trying to close criminal cases regardless of guilt or innocence, leading to wrongful convictions. However, he adds, just because there are less exonerations in other states doesn’t mean there are less wrongful convictions — only less people to expose them.
Alissa Zhu is a WBEZ news intern. Follow her @AlissaZhu.