May 9, 2014
The word “exoneration” has been given new meaning, and it includes people who were never actually proven to be innocent. This strange development is hidden in the small print of the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the Michigan and Northwestern Law Schools. The project has the worthy goal of documenting cases in which “someone convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.” That is the common sense meaning of the word and it’s the definition prominently displayed on the home page of the project.
But buried in the glossary is a “more precise definition” that amounts to doublespeak. (You have to click “learn more” on the home page and then scroll down and click “glossary” to find this important qualifying language.) An exact quote from the “more precise definition” tells the story: “The evidence of innocence need not be an explicit basis for the official action that exonerated the person.”
What does that mean? It means that cases in which the defendant has not been “cleared based on new evidence of innocence” can count as exonerations. And the “evidence of innocence” is a judgment call made by those who run the project. Through this rhetorical sleight of hand, the Registry now includes cases labeled as “child sex abuse hysteria.” In short, the Registry has adopted the witch-hunt narrative. What it has not done is confront the evidence of abuse in those cases. If the “evidence of innocence” does not need to be subject to adversarial proceedings or be the explicit basis for the official action, then “exoneration” means nothing of the sort. It may reveal a lot about the politics behind the Registry, but it tells us little or nothing about the underlying evidence.