What Is Exoneration?

DNA has been used exonerate individuals who were found guilty in the past.
Some death row inmates proclaim their innocence and fight for exoneration.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 July 2014
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Exoneration is an action in which someone is cleared of guilt. This term often comes up in the context of people who have been condemned to death and are fighting for exoneration so that they can be released. It is also possible to receive exoneration for other types of crimes, and the term may be used in other legal senses, not necessarily in cases where someone has been found not guilty after a conviction. For example, people who have fully discharged debt obligations may be said to be exonerated, meaning that they are no longer responsible for the debt.

Most legal systems are designed so that the people responsible for crimes can be identified and punished. The goal is to make sure that the actual criminal is convicted and someone is not wrongfully imprisoned. However, it is possible for someone to be erroneously convicted, for any number of reasons. Thus, exoneration can play an important role in the legal system, by providing an avenue to allow innocent people to be discharged of guilty verdicts.


People may find themselves convicted of crimes they did not commit because they had poor legal representation, as a result of fabricated evidence, or in a situation where not all of the evidence was available. Juries may hear the evidence and determine that to the best of their knowledge, the accused did indeed commit the crime, and thus they are required to return a guilty verdict. Criminals are usually given opportunities to appeal for a chance at exoneration or to challenge the legality of the proceedings to argue that the verdict is invalid, even if they did commit the crime.

The increasing use of genetic evidence has played an important role in some exoneration cases. Physical evidence has been used to categorically rule someone out of a crime scene, sometimes decades after the fact. DNA exoneration is a tool utilized by many members of the legal community who work to discharge people of guilty verdicts for crimes like murders. However, genetic evidence is not always available and sometimes a case for exoneration must be built on other types of evidence.

Once someone is exonerated, he or she is considered not guilty of the crime and is immediately released. However, after exoneration, many people struggle to re-enter society. People who have been imprisoned for an extended period of time may have difficulty joining society again and some people who have been wrongfully convicted have understandable feelings of anger about their situations. Organizations which work to exonerate people who are believed to be innocent may also have advocacy branches which work with people who are reintegrating into society after exoneration.


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