What is Exoneration?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 January 2020
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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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Post 5

Considering how much student loans Americans have now and how many of those are in default, I think that there should be an exoneration program. Those who have loans that are greater than a certain amount and an income lower than a certain amount should be exonerated of, at least, part of their loans. I think that student loans and interest rates have made life almost impossible to live for some Americans. I hear such sad stories from students who couldn't find a good job and can't afford their payments.

Post 4

@bear78-- Even though this technology is available now, sometimes there isn't a lot of evidence and the evidence that exists is against the person seeking exoneration. But I agree that it's better to let a criminal go rather than to punish an innocent.

Post 3

I remember reading about this sometime back. There was an article about a large number of people who were exonerated thanks to DNA evidence recently in the US. They were lucky that there were still evidences and DNA samples that labs could use to run DNA tests about the criminal. The fact that so many people were found to be innocent also raised questions about the reliability of the judicial system when DNA evidence is not necessary.

I personally think that it's awful that so many people have served a sentence in jail for cries they did not commit. But I'm also happy that many are being exonerated now. Truth does prevail, even if it takes some time.

Post 2

@Grivusangel -- So true. There was a man who was in jail for nine years for murder. He had three trials and was finally acquitted. Well, he was put in jail when he was 19. When he was released, he was completely unable to adjust to life outside, so he broke into a convenience store and stole cigarettes. He's back in jail, now.

I really feel if he had been able to get help from a program to assist people in re-entering the free world, he would have been able to stay out of trouble. But nine years is half a lifetime when you're 19, and it can completely change someone's pattern of response and behavior. I hope he can get the help he needs to readjust when he gets out of jail this time. Very, very sad.

Post 1

There should certainly be programs in place to help people re-integrate into society after a long incarceration. It's hard to realize what many years of institutionalization will do to a person's ability to think and act independently and responsibly when out in the free world.

Prison life is so regimented that some people become unable to function in a world without that rigidity. Readjustment programs c can help people become accustomed to a world that has probably changed a great deal since they were incarcerated. These programs help people find jobs and learn to navigate the world which is now open to them.

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