Closing International Law’s Innocence Gap

Over the last decade, a growing number of countries have adopted new laws and other mechanisms to address a gap in national criminal legal systems: the absence of meaningful procedures to raise post-conviction claims of factual innocence. These legal and policy reforms have responded to a global surge of exonerations facilitated by the growth of national innocence organizations that increasingly collaborate across borders. It is striking that these developments have occurred with little direct help from international law. Although many treaties recognize extensive fair trial and appeal rights, no international human rights instrument—in its text, existing interpretation, or implementation—explicitly and fully recognizes the right to assert a claim of factual innocence. We label this omission international law’s innocence gap. The gap appears increasingly anomalous given how foundational innocence protection has become at the national level, as well as international law’s longstanding commitment to the presumption of innocence, fair trial, and other criminal process guarantees. We argue the time has come to close this innocence gap by recognizing a new international human right to assert post-trial claims of factual innocence.

* L. Neil Williams, Jr., Professor of Law, Duke University School of Law and Director, Wilson Center for Science and Justice, Duke University School of Law.                 

† Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law, Duke University School of Law and Permanent Visiting Professor, iCourts: Centre of Excellence for International Courts, University of Copenhagen.                            

‡ Clinical Professor of Law, Director, International Human Rights Clinic, Duke University School of Law.   


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