24 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2007 Last revised: 15 Sep 2008

See all articles by Daniel S. Medwed

Daniel S. Medwed

Northeastern University - School of Law


American criminal law is undergoing a transformation due to the increasing centrality of issues related to actual innocence in courtrooms, classrooms, and newsrooms. This phenomenon, which I will term ¿innocentrism,¿ derives mainly from the emergence of DNA testing and the subsequent use of that technology to exonerate innocent prisoners. Indeed, since 1989, over 200 prisoners have been freed as a result of post-conviction DNA testing, their innocence proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Dozens of nonprofit innocence projects have sprung up to investigate and litigate claims of innocence. Legislators have responded favorably to these developments as well; over forty state legislatures have passed statutes to facilitate inmate access to biological evidence that is suitable for post-conviction DNA testing. A number of states have even gone beyond the realm of DNA and implemented legislation designed to address the root causes of wrongful convictions, for instance, by modifying the manner in which eyewitness identification procedures are conducted. The academic community, in turn, has gravitated toward the topic of innocence with rising ardor, as evidenced by the fact that no fewer than eight major law reviews have published symposia on topics concerning wrongful convictions since 2002. It may not be farfetched to suggest, as others have done, that the effort to free the innocent has become the civil rights movement of the twenty-first century.

Many observers, including this author, have praised the evolving focus on actual innocence in the criminal law discourse and advocated the passage of legislative reforms geared toward eradicating or at least curtailing the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. Several prominent commentators, however, have reacted less sympathetically and have mounted a series of attacks on the innocence movement, both from the right and the left. In this Essay, I aim to respond to those skeptical of (and antagonistic toward) the emerging centrality of innocence-based arguments in criminal law: in effect, to critique the critics. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that innocentrism, while far from a panacea to the criminal justice system's many ills, is a positive occurrence and one that ultimately can complement, rather than replace, the emphasis on substantive and procedural rights that for good reason rests at the core of American criminal law.

Keywords: innocence, wrongful convictions, post-conviction, exoneration

Suggested Citation

Medwed, Daniel S., Innocentrism. University of Illinois Law Review, Vol. 2008, p. 1549, U of Utah Legal Studies Paper No. 07-01, Available at SSRN:

Daniel S. Medwed (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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