DNA Exoneration Statistics: 1989 to 2024 in the U.S.
Updated on April 18, 2024
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DNA Exoneration Statistics: 1989 to 2024 in the U.S.

The United States sends more people to jail than any other country in the world.1 As much as twenty percent of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S.2

  • About 1 in every 200 Americans are incarcerated each year
  • Nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population is currently in jail or prison2
  • 1.9 million people are locked up in correctional facilities across the U.S.1

Unfortunately, two to ten percent of incarcerated Americans are wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit.3

DNA exoneration can prove the innocence of people who were wrongly imprisoned even when there is no physical evidence connecting them to the crime.

There have been 3,284 exonerations in the United States as of 2023.4 About 17.5 percent of all exonerations were acquitted of crimes through DNA exoneration.

Facts & Latest Trends in DNA Exoneration

Gary Dotson was the first DNA exoneration case in the U.S. It took place in Alabama in 1989 after serving ten years for a rape that never happened.

Since then, DNA testing has helped prove the innocence of 575 Americans who were unjustly incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit.4

DNA Exoneration Rates from 1989 to 2023

DNA Exoneration Statistics: 1989 to 2024 in the U.S. 5
  • Percentage of DNA vs. Non-DNA Exonerations: Non-DNA exonerations comprise 82.48 percent of all cases. DNA exonerations only make up 17.5 percent of the total exonerations.
  • Rate of DNA vs. Non-DNA Exonerations: Non-DNA exoneration rates doubled from 2012 to 2022 (119%), while DNA exoneration rates remained stable in the same ten-year period with about 20 exonerations per year.
  • DNA Exonerations Before and After 2000: From 1989 to 1999, about eight exonerees were released each year. After 2000, DNA exoneration rates more than doubled (117.13%), and at least 22 people were set free yearly.

DNA Exoneration Demographics from 1989 to 2023

DNA Exoneration Statistics: 1989 to 2024 in the U.S. 6
  • DNA Exonerations by Age: The average age of Americans at the time of their wrongful conviction is 26.6 years. By the time they are exonerated, they will have already reached 43 years old.5
  • DNA Exonerations by Sex: 561 (98%) of DNA exonerees are male. Only 14 (2%) of DNA exonerees are female.4
  • DNA Exonerations by Race: Black Americans make up most of DNA exonerees (57%), followed by White Americans (33%) and Hispanics (8%).4

DNA Exonerees Before and After Prison

  • DNA Exonerations by Crime: Most DNA exonerees (45%) were wrongly convicted of murder (45%), followed by sexual assault (39%), child sex abuse (34%), and other crimes not involving robbery and drugs (6%).4
  • Guilty Plea Before Exoneration: 513 (89.2%) of DNA exonerees plead “not guilty” before they were exonerated. Only 62 (10.8%) plead “guilty” to a crime they were falsely accused of.
  • Years Served Before Exoneration: DNA exonerees each served about 8.9 years in prison6 or 5,117 years and 6 months before they were exonerated.
  • Years Lost After Exoneration: DNA exonerees each lost an average of 15 years or 8,609 years in total, which they would have served in prison.4
  • Saved from a Death Sentence: About six percent of DNA exonerees were on death row prior to exoneration.

Why DNA Exonerees Are Wrongfully Convicted in the U.S.

DNA Exoneration Statistics: 1989 to 2024 in the U.S. 7

With about two million people in U.S. jails and prisons, it’s possible that anywhere between 40,000 and 200,000 Americans have been wrongfully convicted.

Based on data collected by the National Registry of Exonerations, the most common causes of wrongful convictions among U.S. DNA exonerees are:4

  • Mistaken identity
  • False confession
  • Bad forensic evidence
  • Perjury or false accusation
  • Official misconduct

One or more of these factors led to the wrongful imprisonment of innocent people who would have been acquitted with DNA evidence.

Mistaken Identity

Eyewitness testimony is often used as evidence. While it can be persuasive before a judge and jury, it isn’t necessarily reliable.

Research shows that we cannot recall events exactly as we’ve seen them. So it’s possible that a witness may incorrectly identify a suspect.7

Eyewitness misidentification led to the wrongful conviction of more than half (55.8%) of DNA exoneration cases.4

False Confession or Guilty Plea

False confessions aren’t always prompted by actual guilt or real knowledge of the crime. It can be a person’s response to:7,8

  • Real or perceived intimidation from law enforcers
  • The perceived threat or actual use of force by law enforcers
  • Being stressed, hungry, or exhausted during interrogation
  • Being under the influence of a substance while being interrogated
  • Fear that not confessing will lead to a harsher punishment
  • Lack of knowledge of one’s rights as an American citizen
  • Misleading interrogation techniques (e.g., making untrue statements about crime details, such as the presence of incriminating evidence)

People who are young or have limited education, mental limitations or disorders, or fear of authority figures are also more likely to become false confessors.

About a quarter of DNA exonerees (23.7%) pled guilty to a crime they didn’t commit or made incriminating statements and false confessions.4

Bad Forensic Evidence

Forensic science isn’t perfect. Many techniques still used today haven’t undergone rigorous scientific evaluation and may turn up inaccurate results. 

Some examples of these include:

  • Hair microscopy
  • Bite mark comparisons
  • Firearm tool mark analysis
  • Shoe print comparisons

Even scientifically validated forensic methods like blood typing may provide inaccurate results due to improper handling and testing.

Sometimes, forensic analysts may be involved in misconduct and fabricate results that could lead to a person’s wrongful conviction.

Nearly half of DNA exonerees (45.9%) were unjustly incarcerated with bad forensic evidence.4

False Accusations (Perjury)

When someone is asked to speak in court, they are made to swear to tell the truth. Willfully telling an untruth after taking this oath is an act of perjury.

Using false truths to testify against defendants leads to unfair trials and the conviction of innocent people.

Half of DNA exonerees (52%) were sent to jail or prison by false accusations.4

Official Misconduct

Law enforcers and prosecutors are supposed to uphold truth and justice. But in many cases, they are responsible for wrongfully convicting a person.

Negligence, misconduct, and corruption may cause officials to lose sight of their public duties and secure convictions despite the lack of evidence.

Over half (54.3%) of DNA exonerees were convicted due to official misconduct.4

U.S. States with the Highest DNA Exoneration Rates

DNA Exoneration Statistics: 1989 to 2024 in the U.S. 8

States with larger populations or actively pursue wrongful convictions tend to exonerate more people who have been mistakenly accused or charged with crimes.

Below is a list of the top U.S. states with the highest DNA exoneration rates as of 2023, along with data on the:4

  • Number of DNA exonerations per state
  • Racial background of DNA exonerees by state
  • Crimes DNA exonerees were commonly convicted by state
U.S. StatesNumber of DNA ExonerationsTop Race of DNA ExonereesTop Crime DNA ExonereesWere Accused Of
Texas74Black (58%)Sexual Assault (54%)
Illinois66Black (82%)Murder (67%)
New York53Black (49%)Sexual Assault (47%)
California29White (48%)Murder (59%)
Louisiana23Black (87%)Sexual Assault (48%)
North Carolina22Black (77%)Murder (55%)
Florida21White (48%)Murder (48%)
Virginia20Black (70%)Sexual Assault (70%)
Pennsylvania19Black (58%)Murder (58%)
Wisconsin16White (56%)Murder (44%)
Massachusetts16Black (50%)Murder (44%), Sexual Assault (44%)

Key Statistics on DNA Forensics Now and Then

DNA Forensics Accuracy and Usage

  • DNA evidence is considered highly accurate, with studies showing that it is 99% accurate. However, DNA evidence is used in less than 1% of all criminal cases.
  • Since 1989, in the U.S., 575 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated based on DNA samples, with 35 of them having been on death row.
  • As of the end of 2022, the National DNA Index System in the U.S. has DNA information for more than 15.7 million offenders and more than 4.8 million arrestees.
  • The Innocence Project reported that in more than 25% of cases in a National Institute of Justice study, suspects were excluded once DNA testing was conducted during the criminal investigation.

Success Rates in Solving Cases

  • For sexual assaults, the clearance rate was 32.0 percent for cases with forensic evidence compared to 10.1 percent for cases without forensic evidence.
  • A study revealed that in 78 percent of the matches to an unsolved violent crime, DNA was collected from an adult arrested for a non-violent offense.
  • According to the Forensic Genetic Genealogy Project, 545 cases had been solved using forensic genetic genealogy as of December 31, 2022.
  • The Louisiana Cold Case project generated a hit in 27.11% of the total number of sexual assault cases analyzed.

Factors Influencing Success Rates

  • Certain types of evidence, such as cigarettes, bloodstains, and headwear, have relatively high DNA success rates, while others like cartridge cases, crowbars, and tie-wraps have lower success rates.
  • Biological fluid traces like blood, saliva, and semen provided the highest proportions of full profiles (up to 87.5%), whereas touch samples were less successful overall (<30%).
  • Environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and UV light exposure significantly affect the stability of touch DNA evidence. High temperature and low humidity conditions lead to more DNA degradation, while low temperatures are more conducive to DNA stability.
  • There is high variability in the amount of DNA left by touch, both from one person to another and from the same person at different times.

Changes in DNA Forensics Success Rates Over Time

DNA Analysis of Crime SamplesItems like cigarettes, bloodstains, and headwear have relatively high success rates, while cartridge cases, crowbars, and tie-wraps are less successful.
DNA Database EffectivenessThe CODIS hit rate increased from 47% to 58% over the last ten years due to DNA database expansion, without additional forensic (crime scene) samples being added.
DNA Profiling Success RatesStudies report DNA profiling success rates ranging from 10% to 100%, depending on the subject and the laboratory.
Forensic DNA Leads in Preventing CrimeUsing three forensic laboratories as benchmarks, an average 24.13% hit rate for sexual assault cases was reported.
Updated on April 18, 2024

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16 sources cited
Updated on April 18, 2024
  1. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023.” Prison Policy Initiative Reports.

  2. What percent of the U.S. is incarcerated?” Prison Policy Initiative Blog.

  3. Op-Ed: John Grisham: Eight reasons for America’s shameful number of wrongful convictions.” Los Angeles Times.

  4. Exonerations by State.” National Registry of Exonerations, Michigan State University: College of Law.

  5. DNA Exonerations in the United States (1989 – 2020).” Innocence Project.

  6. 25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions.” National Registry of Exonerations, Michigan State University: College of Law.

  7. Causes of Wrongful Conviction.” Sociology, Western Michigan University.

  8. False Confessions & Recording Of Custodial Interrogations.” Innocence Project.

  9. Quaglia, Sofia. “The Evolution of DNA Forensics and Its Impact on Solving Crimes.” Discover Magazine, 2023.

  10. McEwen, Tom. “The Role and Impact of Forensic Evidence in the Criminal Justice System, Executive Summary.” Institute for Law and Justice, 2011.

  11. Bonta, Rob. “Brown Releases Study Showing DNA Collected at Arrests Helps to Solve Murders, Rapes and Other Violent Crimes.” State of California Department of Justice.

  12. Taylor, Michelle. “How Many Cases Have Been Solved with Forensic Genetic Genealogy?” Forensic Mag, 2023.

  13. Mapes, Anna. “Knowledge on DNA Success Rates to Optimize the DNA Analysis Process: From Crime Scene to Laboratory.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2016.

  14. Krosch, Matt. “Variation in forensic DNA profiling success among sampled Items and collection methods: a Queensland perspective.” Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2020.

  15. DNA Exonerations in the United States (1989 – 2020).” Innocence Project.

  16. Wickenheiser, Ray. “The value of forensic DNA leads in preventing crime and eliminating the innocent.” Forensic Science International Synergy, 2021.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad
Content Contributor
Angela is a full-time digital content manager and editor for Know Your DNA. She also contributes freelance articles to several local and international websites when she has the time. She's always been a voracious believer in finding the truth and ensuring the science is sound.