Short Take: The Language of Exoneration

From the vacatur of the convictions of the Central Park 5 to the numerous prisoners whose convictions are being vacated after spending decades in prison, the headlines are that these individuals are “exonerated.” Is that the right word to use? Does exoneration convey the correct meaning?

According to Merriam-Webster, exoneration means

  1. to relieve of a responsibility, obligation, or hardship
  2. to clear from accusation or blame

Is this an adequate definition? After all, when Trump claimed he had been exonerated by the Senate after his “trial” for two impeachments, many pointed out that while the Senate may not have removed him from office, he was by no means exonerated, as in proven innocent. And that too is asserted when juries return verdicts of “not guilty” and defendants proclaim that a jury has found them innocent. That, of course, isn’t what juries do, nor should it be. So are they exonerated?

There are two distinct ways in which old convictions are undone. The first is that evidence, such as DNA, reveals that they are not the individual who committed the crime. These are innocence claims, whereupon a defendant proves, post conviction, that the wrong person was convicted.

Notably, this too has a couple variations on a theme, the affirmative proof of innocence such as DNA and the negative proof such as the eyewitness recanting testimony. The latter is somewhat more suspect, as it can result from post-conviction pressure or recriminations and if testimony under oath in the first place didn’t mean enough not to lie, why believe a reversal of testimony under oath is any more truthful?

In contrast, there are convictions reversed not because the defendant can prove he’s innocent, but because the defendant can prove that he was denied a fair trial and was wrongfully convicted. This could arise from any number of causes, from false testimony to racism to concealment of Brady material.

For the unwary, the fact that exculpatory material wasn’t disclosed as required by law does not mean the defendant was innocent, but merely that he didn’t have the material to use in his defense at trial. When Brady material is properly disclosed, and properly used at trial, defendants are often still convicted, not for lack of exculpatory evidence but because the jury found the inculpatory evidence to be sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

When a conviction is vacated, a defendant is restored to his status as an innocent person, as the presumption of innocence remains intact unless and until a jury finds him guilty. The reversal of the verdict means that it didn’t happen, so in the absence of a guilty verdict, the defendant remains as innocent as he was in the first place.

But is a defendant whose conviction was vacated not because of affirmative proof of innocence but because his conviction was flawed “exonerated”?

In general, an exoneration occurs when a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.

Does this matter? Legally, it might or might not. Some states compensate the innocent for wrongful imprisonment, although why the wrongfully convicted shouldn’t be similarly compensated remains a fair question. If they are, and they are, legally restored to innocence not by affirmative proof but by flawed conviction, we may not be able to say that they are definitively factually innocent, but we can state that they are as innocent as anyone else who is unconvicted of a crime.

Black’s Law Dictionary offers this definition of exoneration:

To lift, remove the stain of being called out for blame, liability, or punishment. It is more that just freeing an accused person of the responsibility for a criminal or otherwise illegal or wrongful act. It is publicly stating that this accused should never have been accused in the first place.

That a conviction was predicated upon false testimony or denial of a constitutional right, and was subsequently vacated is certainly justification for vacating the conviction, but does it justify the headlines that a defendant has been exonerated when he may well have wrongfully fired the bullet that killed the deceased, even if the conviction cannot be sustained?

13 thoughts on “Short Take: The Language of Exoneration

  1. Richard Kopf


    Thanksgiving to Christmas are bad times for me. You make it ever so much better.

    All the best.


    PS re the post: Regarding the last question, my answer is “No.”

  2. Elpey P.

    “does it justify the headlines”

    If headlines were always justified they wouldn’t serve their purpose as well as they do. Misusing “exoneration” is a great gimmick for outrage about how terrible our legal system is (ironically), and is an investment toward future stories of conflict and mayhem.

    The marketplace has shown it cares little about misinformation, even prefers it. On a collective scale, nuance creates cognitive dissonance. When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.

    If we can watch it happening so easily with contemporary stories where contradictory evidence is readily available, imagine how much of history is nonsense.

  3. Andrew Santos Fleischman

    I think you’re right that we use exoneration a bit too broadly. Like, if someone is convicted of drug dealing, and I prove the search was unlawful on appeal, and the State no longer has any evidence to convict because it’s been suppressed, that’s a great result! But it’s not an exoneration.

    And frankly, even an acquittal might not mean anything more than that the evidence is insufficient, if you think juries take BRD language seriously.

        1. norahc

          Didn’t everyone get the memo? Exonerated is now reserved for those who the shitlords have incarcerated simply to oppress them. Everyone else is deemed to have deserved their incarceration plus cancer.

  4. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    That a conviction was predicated upon false testimony or denial of a constitutional right, and was subsequently vacated is certainly justification for vacating the conviction, but does it justify the headlines that a defendant has been exonerated when he may well have wrongfully fired the bullet that killed the deceased, even if the conviction cannot be sustained?

    No. That’s a good point. But why encourage anyone who isn’t the guy’s priest to distinguish between legal and factual innocence after vacatur? This seems like an invitation to ex post facto mob justice.

    1. SHG Post author

      Given my views about the value of the presumption of innocence, you have a point. But is it “encouragement” to accurately distinguish the characterization of post-conviction relief between proving affirmative innocence from flawed conviction? Maybe. Those mobs can be vicious.


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