BGA Staff: James Edwards, Solomon Lieberman, Mary Frances O’Connor, Jessica Curry, Samuel Cuomo, Kathryn Chimienti; BGA Interns: Sophia Bairaktaris, Tania Karas, Gregory Pratt, Emily Jurlina, Diana Novak, Taniesha Robinson; CWC: Dolores Kennedy, Ron Fredrickson, Jennifer Linzer, Tom Severson; Navigant Consulting: Pancho Nagel; Adam Verwymeren Design.

How BGA/CWC’s investigation determined facts, figures

For the purposes of the BGA/CWC’s investigation, an exoneree was defined as someone who has been convicted of a crime and later restored to the status of legal innocence as a result of evidence that was not presented at the original trial.

This definition excludes certain categories of wrongful conviction that a layperson might call “getting off on a technicality” (e.g., the gun used in the crime was in the closet, but the conviction was overturned because police had searched the house without a warrant). The actual mechanism of exoneration varied: the 85 individuals were either acquitted upon retrial, or had all charges withdrawn by a prosecutor or dismissed by a judge, and/or received a court-issued certificate of innocence or a gubernatorial pardon.

We confined our study to cases of murder, sexual assault, attempted murder, and armed robbery. We examined only cases in which exoneration occurred after 1989, the start of the forensic DNA era in Illinois.

Because the sample was limited to the wrongfully convicted, someone who was wrongfully charged, but not convicted, did not qualify. Thus some notorious cases that cost taxpayers millions of dollars—many caused by law enforcement misconduct—are not included in the sample.

Prosecuting the innocent is more expensive because they are less likely to plead guilty and more likely to have prolonged battles in state and federal courts after conviction. We have not included prosecution costs in the investigation, however, because they are difficult to quantify and somewhat immutable: the prosecutor (and the public defender, if one is engaged) would be working on another case if the exoneree’s charge was not consuming his or her time.

Our estimate of the financial cost is conservative when judged by other standards as well. In determining the cost of incarceration in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) for each of the 85 wrongfully convicted individuals, we have multiplied the number of days served by the average daily cost of keeping a prisoner in IDOC custody during the years each prisoner served. This method does not account for the fact that custody costs are higher for prisoners convicted of violent crimes, and much higher for prisoners on death row, where a good number of the individuals in the BGA/CWC investigation resided.

Some estimation was involved in determining cost of jail incarceration, in part because several counties don’t keep separate budgets for their jails and so were unable to provide cost-of-operation figures, and also because other counties were able to provide operating costs for some years but not others. For counties that were unable to provide any cost figures, we applied a cost-per-year based on a calculation of the yearly averages of those counties that did provide data. For counties that could only provide current year data (Cook County among them), we used the current cost and adjusted for previous years using the Consumer Price Index.

Some county jails could not provide precise entry and exit dates, necessary to calculate the cost of incarceration of an inmate (some of our exonerees were jailed as far back as the 1970s). In those cases we have assumed that the individual was in county custody from the date of arrest until the date he or she entered IDOC custody. In instances where we made that assumption it is noted in the text.

Three columns on the financial cost spreadsheet call for explanation. In some cases, the Illinois Department of Corrections release date (“IDOC Physical Release Date”) does not match the “Date of Final Release” found in a separate column. In those cases, the exoneree was transported from IDOC custody to a county jail, usually as a result of winning a new trial. After prevailing in that trial or having charges dropped or dismissed, the exoneree exited from a county facility, not from the IDOC, and that exit date is listed as their “Date of Final Release.”

The “Date of Exoneration” can refer to many different dates. Some individuals were pardoned, others won acquittal or had their convictions vacated, still others received court-issued certificates of innocence. Because of this variation, in some cases the “Date of Exoneration” matches the “Date of Final Release,” and in others it does not.

In determining the causes of each wrongful conviction, we examined court documents and news articles on each of our 85 cases. With few exceptions, multiple causes contributed to each conviction. As there is no arbiter who makes a final pronouncement determining exactly where each case went wrong, our analysis depends on the public record of what was alleged—not determined—in each case.

Four of the seven categories in our study of what went wrong might not be immediately understood by the lay reader.

  • A case was found to include “Questionable Forensic Evidence or Testimony” any time forensics were used to help convict a defendant who was later exonerated.
  • An “Incentivized Witness” is one who expects or is awarded some benefit from law enforcement authorities in exchange for testimony. Such a witness might take the stand in expectation of collecting reward money, receiving some sort of other payment (e.g., “relocation money”), or receiving leniency for crimes with which he or she may be or have been charged or convicted. Sometimes the incentive comes in the form of a threat that if the witness does not testify, he or she will be charged with a crime.
  • The “False Confession” category includes cases in which the exoneree or a co-defendant who implicated the exoneree allegedly confessed to a crime he or she had not committed or allegedly made a statement from which authorities inferred guilt. In some cases, false confessions were coerced by physical force and in others the coercion was psychological. In other cases, someone who was mentally ill or of limited intelligence incriminated themselves. The false confession category also includes cases in which police or prosecutors claimed the accused confessed and the accused claimed the contrary.
  • The “No Crime Committed” category includes two cases in which a victim claimed to have been sexually assaulted. In Gary Dotson’s case, the alleged victim admitted that she’d lied and he subsequently became the first person cleared by DNA testing in Illinois. In Wilder Berry’s case, a federal judge granted him a retrial based on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. (The judge called Berry’s lawyer “incompetent.”) At Berry’s second trial, a jury acquitted him based on evidence his first lawyer had failed to present.

To document the felonies committed by the real perpetrators while others served their prison time we examined court records, other public documents, and news articles. In 48 of the 85 cases, the real perpetrator has not been publicly identified, so the total felonies we report are without doubt vastly underestimated.

In at least two cases, law enforcement authorities have indicated that they know who has committed the crime, but they have not publicly released that person’s name, so there was no avenue to track their felonies.

In other cases, someone’s DNA was traced to the crime or the real perpetrator was identified in some other way, but no charges were filed. (In some of those cases the statute of limitations had expired by the time the felon was identified.) In three of our exonerees’ cases, someone confessed to the crime or provided details to police that only the perpetrator could know, but was not subsequently charged. (Each of those three men is already serving a severe prison sentence—one is on death row in Texas, another is serving a life sentence in Illinois, and the third is serving a 29 year sentence in Arizona.) In all of these cases, we included their felonies in our tabulations.

Lastly, in four cases on the spreadsheet there is no perpetrator to identify because either there was no crime committed or because a shooting took place and the shooter is known, but the circumstances were such that in the end, the state was ultimately unable to hold anyone responsible.


Below you’ll find the three downloadable data packages defined above, and a “data brief” that looks at key information for each of the 85 exonerees.

I. Master DatabaseII. Causes of Wrongful ConvictionsIII. Tracking the Crime Spree

Data is divided into two sections: a biography of the individual and his or her case, and the financial costs tied to the individual’s incarceration, compensation for wrongful conviction, and civil suits. Sources include court documents, government records, news articles, and interviews with attorneys for the wrongfully convicted.

Data breaks down the causes behind wrongful convictions, including areas such as alleged government misconduct or error, and erroneous eyewitness identification. The sources include court documents, state and county public records and news articles.
Data tracks whether the real perpetrator was ever found, and, if so, the crimes he or she committed while the wrong person was serving time. Sources include court documents, Illinois Department of Corrections records and news articles.