Mason researcher tackles 'The Politics of Innocence' in new book


Since 1989, more than 3,000 people have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted. In his new book, The Politics of Innocence: How Wrongful Convictions Shape Public Opinion (New York University Press, September 2023), Robert J. Norris, associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society, and his coauthors explore the political dynamics that shape the innocence movement.

Robert Norris
Robert J. Norris. Photo provided

What inspired you to write this book?

After exploring how wrongful convictions had become such a prominent advocacy issue in the criminal legal system, I was left with lingering questions about how much the public knew about [wrongful convictions] and how they responded to information about them. Around that same time, one of my coauthors and I were having lunch and discussed the first season of the podcast Serial, which was about a likely wrongful conviction. We were talking about how those sorts of stories made people nervous and wondered how common that feeling was. We began designing our first study and now, seven years later, here we are!

Was there anything that surprised you in the research for this book? 

Throughout the book, we show that wrongful convictions can change people’s support for the death penalty and their trust in the criminal justice system generally. However, we were a bit surprised to find that we could not change people’s trust in police, even when explicitly telling people about the role of police in wrongful convictions. Those attitudes appear to be more entrenched and resistant to change than others. Another thing that is perhaps not surprising, but definitely heartening, is that while innocence reform is political, people across the ideological spectrum can be persuaded to support changes that would help improve our legal system. We can cut through some of the ideological noise and appeal to a variety of different people. 

What are you working on now? 

I’m currently working on a variety of things. Some of these projects are still related to innocence, including work on the racial history of wrongful convictions, the post-release experiences of wrongly convicted people, narrative language in wrongful convictions, and the relationship between the innocence movement and the antideath penalty movement. Other work is more generally tied to public opinion, such as the process that leads people to support punitive practices and the effects of the language we use to discuss incarcerated populations. I’m also beginning to explore some broader conceptual ideas about completely unrelated issues, which is really exciting for me.