According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,230 criminal defendants who were wrongfully convicted have been exonerated since 1989. Another 1,170 cases involving wrongful convictions were not included in the Registry’s database because they were “collective exonerations” in police misconduct scandals in which officers fabricated evidence – for example, by planting drugs or guns on suspects.
The criminal justice system does not keep an official record of exonerations. As such, the University of Michigan Law School partnered with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law to found the Registry in May 2012.
The Registry’s database includes cases gathered from court records and catalogs of exonerations maintained by wrongful conviction organizations, such as the Innocence Project.
One of the most recent exonerations in the Registry is that of Sheldon Mosley, who was convicted of child sexual abuse in 1996 in Texas, sentenced to 60 years and released on October 11, 2013. Mosley was falsely accused of molesting his 4-year-old daughter, who recanted in 2012, saying she had been coerced into testifying about the abuse by other family members. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Mosley’s conviction and the district attorney dismissed the charges.
The Registry has amassed details about 1,232 exonerations between 1989 and October 2013. The wrongfully convicted defendants in those cases served a combined total of more than 10,000 years in prison before being exonerated. Ninety-three percent were male and around half were African American. Over 100 had been sentenced to death.
Interestingly, 83% of the exonerees had taken their cases to trial and been convicted by juries; 7% were convicted by judges while only 9% pleaded guilty. This indicates that in a disproportionate percentage of cases, the defendants who went to trial proclaiming their innocence were, in fact, innocent.
According to the Registry, 52% of wrongful convictions involved perjured testimony or false accusations; in homicide cases that number climbed to 65%. Police and prosecutorial misconduct, including withholding exculpatory evidence, contributed to 43% of the cases resulting in exonerations.
Just over 40% of the wrongful convictions were based on mistaken eyewitness identification – 79% in sexual abuse cases. False or misleading forensic evidence was involved in 22% of wrongful convictions, while false confessions occurred in 14%. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.14; April 2011, p.18]. The percentages add up to more than 100% because multiple factors were involved in many of the cases.
“The most important goal of the [criminal justice] system is accuracy,” said Michigan Law School professor Samuel Gross, who helped create the Registry. “Getting the right person and not getting the wrong person are obviously the most important goals. The only way to get those are to learn how we made our mistakes.”
The Registry does not include innocent defendants who pleaded guilty to avoid the risk of more serious punishments, or cases that were dismissed due to legal errors absent evidence of innocence.
The Registry is “a good start” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. However, it represents only a small fraction of the total number of cases involving innocence. “We know there are many more that we haven’t found,” said Gross. Counties such as San Bernardino County in California and Bexar County in Texas are heavily populated yet claim to have no exonerations. Researchers believe that is unlikely.
“What this shows is that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, and they are more common than people think,” Gross stated.
Unsurprisingly, some prosecutors disagree. Exonerations “give the gross perception that there is a serious problem with wrongful convictions in this country, and it is just not the case,” said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.
One cannot help but wonder if Mr. Burns and his fellow prosecutors would feel the same way if they were among the thousands of innocent men and women who have been wrongfully convicted and sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
The Registry is not the first project to compile a database of exonerations. Justice Denied maintains a list of more than 3,900 people who were wrongfully convicted both in the United States and other countries, and publishes an online quarterly magazine of the same name about wrongful convictions. Plus the Innocence Project has a database of 311 post-conviction DNA exonerations. [See PLN’s resources section on page 60].
Sources: USA Today, Associated Press, Huffington Post, www.exonerationregistry.org
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