#BookReview – EXONERATED: A History of the Innocence Movement by Robert J. Norris

The fascinating story behind the innocence movement’s quest for justice.

Documentaries like Making a Murderer, the first season of Serial, and the cause célèbre that was the West Memphis Three captured the attention of millions and focused the national discussion on wrongful convictions. This interest is warranted: more than 1,800 people have been set free in recent decades after being convicted of crimes they did not commit.

In response to these exonerations, federal and state governments have passed laws to prevent such injustices; lawyers and police have changed their practices; and advocacy organizations have multiplied across the country. Together, these activities are often referred to as the “innocence movement.” Exonerated provides the first in-depth look at the history of this movement through interviews with key leaders such as Barry Scheck and Rob Warden as well as archival and field research into the major cases that brought awareness to wrongful convictions in the United States.

Robert Norris also examines how and why the innocence movement took hold. He argues that while the innocence movement did not begin as an organized campaign, scientific, legal, and cultural developments led to a widespread understanding that new technology and renewed investigative diligence could both catch the guilty and free the innocent.

Exonerated reveals the rich background story to this complex movement.

Release Date: May 16, 2017

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My Review

I read a lot on justice/injustice and I generally find this particular topic compelling. Unfortunately, that was not the case with this book.

To begin with, this book is laid out and reads like a college thesis or dissertation. The introduction gives us a brief synopsis of every single chapter, which was a warning sign for me. Typically, this is only done in academic writing. When we get to the actual chapters, the writing is overloaded with endnote citations, with as many as four citations per paragraph. Again, this is more in line with academic requirements. A book structured this way is simply not conducive to an immersive reading experience.

In the late 1990s, executions were at an all-time high; 74 inmates were put to death in 1997, followed by 68 the next year.

The writing is dry. Nothing about it moved me. In fact, a line from the (very) old TV show Dragnet kept rolling through my mind: “Just the facts, ma’am.” We don’t examine any case studies. We learn next to nothing about the people who are, in fact, exonerated. We’re told that this is emotional work for the people involved, but we never feel it. I know the intent of this book was a history of the innocence movement, not a case study of those victimized by false imprisonment, but the two are so heavily entwined that you can’t really have one without the other. The absence of emotion and case studies is somewhat ironic, given that the author talks about how people are drawn to stories, and that an individual story moves us far more than statistics.

Furthermore, the number of inmates on death row increased from less than 700 in 1980 to more than 3,000 in 1995, ensuring that the execution pipeline remained full.

I have to mention the author’s fondness for using the phrase “in other words”. Honestly, it drove me so crazy that I counted the number of times it was used, which was 15 times. If you find yourself having to reword and reiterate a point that many times, then either you’re not writing it clearly the first time or you don’t trust that your readers are intelligent enough to grasp your meaning.

In other words, innocence makes that issue of prison reform more relatable, more salient, and ultimately more appealing.

The content itself is repetitive and often long-winded. For instance, we spend a whole lot of time on the history of DNA, learning about the discovery and its transition for use within our legal system. While DNA is certainly an important aspect of criminal justice, I wound up feeling like I was reading a science book on DNA, rather than a book on our justice system.

In late April, there was another meeting at Cold Spring Harbor on genome mapping and sequencing.

In fairness, the material here is well researched. This book will likely work well as a study guide for college classes.

*I received an advance copy from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*


Thanks for reading. 🙂