John Oliver explains why it's so hard for innocent people to win exoneration, even on death row

The U.S. criminal justice system sometimes sends the wrong people to prison, but luckily, "as pop culture has repeatedly taught us, there is a remedy for wrongful convictions built right into the system," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. Unfortunately, "the idea that you can simply fight a wrongful conviction and get exonerated runs deep, but the truth is it is far more difficult than you might expect, even if there's compelling evidence that you are innocent."

To start with, "in general, innocence itself is not an appealable issue," Oliver said. "Now, what you can appeal on is any shocking new evidence that wasn't available during your original trial or a claim that your constitutional rights were violated during it, but that's already a long shot." Most state judges simply side with prosecutors and dismiss appeals, and federal judges have their hands tied by a 1995 law called AEDPA. Basically, he said, "when the whole criminal justice system is geared toward getting a conviction, it has very little interest in seeing its work undone."

Oliver gave several examples of justice gone terribly awry, and ended with the imminent Texas execution of Melissa Lucio, who was coerced into confessing she spanked her daughter and was then convicted of murdering her. He listed several things that might improve the ability of innocent people to win exoneration, and strongly suggested we make it "a priority, because right now we have a system where people can be wrongly convicted, with bad defense attorneys, and left to fight in a convoluted appeals system with little to no help. At which point it really feels like our system is essentially guilty until proven rich or lucky. And that has to change, because we cannot keep letting the most vulnerable be casualties of a system that cares more about quick and final decisions than actually correct ones." There is NSFW language and a poorly handled gold gavel.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.