The term “exonerated” is used to describe a person who has been convicted of a crime, only to be declared innocent after the fact. When someone is exonerated, this makes for an especially difficult situation if the person has spent many years in prison, or who has already been executed as the result of his sentence. In its simplest terms, when someone is exonerated, this means that he has been found innocent of liability. To explore this concept, consider the following exonerated definition.

Definition of Exonerated


  1. To be fully cleared of a prior accusation; to be found innocent of a crime after having already been found guilty of it.


1515-1525         Late Middle English

What Does It Mean to Be Exonerated?

If someone is exonerated, this means that he has been found innocent of a crime for which he had previously been found guilty. For example, exonerated defendants are those that never should have been found guilty of the crimes they were charged with. Unfortunately, some people are exonerated long after they have already been convicted, given the death sentence, and executed. This is because evidence may sometimes present itself years later that wasn’t there before that ends up clearing the person’s name.

An exoneration is a public declaration that this person is innocent of the crime with which he was charged. It works as an apology for the conviction, as well as a public acknowledgment that he never should have been convicted in the first place. As technology improves, and as investigations become more sophisticated, formerly closed cases can be re-opened and re-investigated, and the number of exonerations increases.

Death Row Exoneration

Back in October 2015, the Death Penalty Information Center reported that, in the U.S., there have been 156 exonerations of those who were sentenced to the death penalty since 1973. Looking down the list, there have been more death row exonerations in 2014 and 2015 than any other year, with 2009 coming the closest. Presumably, this is because of the improved methods of investigation that have uncovered the evidence necessary to clear their names.

Reading the conditions that lead to some of these death row exonerations is chilling. For instance, in 1989 Joseph Burrows, convicted in the state of Illinois, was released after his lawyer got the real killer to confess to the crime during the post-conviction hearing. (A post-conviction hearing is held after the trial that convicted the defendant so as to determine his sentence.)

Another example of an exonerated defendant was that of the case involving Darby J. Tillis, also in Illinois. Tillis, an African-American, was convicted of first-degree murder in October 1979, along with his co-defendant Perry Cobb, by an all-white jury.  The Illinois Supreme Court later discovered that the key witness during the trial, Phyllis Santini, was actually an accomplice of the real killer. On top of that, the trial judge was found guilty of accepting bribes. Tillis and Cobb were thereafter exonerated.

The Exoneration Initiative

The Exoneration Initiative is a non-profit organization that offers free legal aid to those who have been wrongly convicted of a crime in the state of New York. This organization takes on what are perhaps the most difficult cases to prove: those without DNA evidence.

One such case involved John Burr, a client who was framed for murder by what turned out to be a corrupt Brooklyn detective back when he was only 14 years old. In 2016, Burr was exonerated after a hearing into the matter, which uncovered two important pieces of information:

  1. That NYPD detective Louis Scarcella was guilty of misconduct; and
  2. That there never even existed probably cause to arrest Burr in the first place.

By this point, Burr had already served 17 years in prison and had spent nearly 30 years trying to prove his innocence.

The Exoneration Initiative notes on its website that there are less than 10 percent of cases that have DNA evidence available for testing purposes. This organization focuses on the other 90 percent. Because it is a non-profit organization, the Exoneration Initiative relies on donations and grants to help its clients. The group also encourages the sharing of its message on social media and offers ideas for sponsorship for those who want to join them in the fight for justice.

The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992, and it is similar to the Exoneration Initiative in that it works to clear the names of those who have been wrongfully convicted. The main differences between the two organizations are: 1) the Innocence Project is not limited to those who live in New York, and 2) the Innocence Project focuses on DNA testing to clear their clients’ names.

The Innocence Project features over 360 cases on its website that include clients that have been exonerated, as well as clients who have had some of their charges dropped but not all. What is perhaps most disheartening are the sentences these people have had to serve for crimes they did not even commit.

One such client, Christopher Abernathy, ended up serving 28 years in prison. He was convicted in January 1987 for crimes that occurred in October 1984. His alleged crimes included first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and armed robbery, and he was sentenced to life in prison. He was ultimately exonerated after DNA testing cleared his name in February of 2015.

Exonerated Example Involving  Post-Conviction DNA Testing

Another example of an exonerated defendant can be found in the case involving Marvin Anderson, the 99th person to be exonerated in the U.S. after post-conviction DNA testing cleared his name. In July 1982, a young woman was raped by a black man. After the woman reported the crime, a police officer determined that Anderson was responsible. This was due to the fact that the perpetrator had told his victim that he “had a white girl.” Anderson was the only black man the officer knew who lived with a white woman, and so the officer figured Anderson must be his guy.

The problem was there was another man who also fit that description: John Otis Lincoln. Lincoln had stolen a bicycle about a half hour prior to the rape, and the bicycle was similar to that which was described by the young woman as having been ridden by her assailant. Anderson asked his attorneys to call both Lincoln and the owner of the bicycle as witnesses. They declined. Anderson was ultimately convicted and sentenced – by an all-white jury – to 210 years in prison.

Six years later, Otis came forward at a state hearing and confessed to the crime. In spite of this, however, the judge – the same one who had presided over Anderson’s trial – refused to overturn Anderson’s conviction. Shortly thereafter, DNA testing was on the rise, and Anderson worked to prove his innocence. However, everyone from his lawyers to the court were told the rape kit had been destroyed.

In 1994, after Anderson had contacted the Innocence Project, his case was accepted. Six years later, Dr. Paul Ferrara, the director of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, reached out to the Innocence Project. Dr. Ferrara let the organization know that certain evidence had been discovered in a criminalist’s laboratory notebook. If the criminalist had actually done as directed and returned the partially used swabs back in 1982, they would have been destroyed with the rape kit – as would have any chance of Anderson securing his freedom.

The Innocence Project won the right to test the DNA in 2001. They discovered two important things from the results: 1) that the results did not match Anderson’s DNA; and 2) that, while the names of those the DNA did match were kept under wraps, it appears that of the two men it matched, one of them was Lincoln.

Anderson was granted a full pardon in August 2002. By that point, he had already spent 15 years in prison and four years on parole. And he had never stopped fighting to prove his innocence.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Conviction – The formal declaration of a defendant as guilty, made either by a jury of his peers or the judge presiding over the case.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made..
  • Probable Cause – Facts and circumstances leading to the belief that an accused person has committed a crime. Probable cause does not arise from a suspicion or a “hunch,” but from observable facts and circumstances.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.