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Report: Nearly One in Four Exonerations Involves Crimes that Never Occurred

A report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations in November 2013 found that 22% of the known exonerations in the U.S. resulted from “no-crime” convictions – that is, cases in which the offender was cleared of wrongdoing because the crime never happened. No-crime exonerations differ from those that involve a crime committed by another person, in that the latter tend to receive more media attention.

Of the 1,242 exonerations included in the Registry at the time of the report, 210 in four major categories were listed as being due to crimes that were never committed. Of those, child sex abuse cases topped the list – 75% of all child sex abuse exonerations involved no crimes. By comparison, no-crime homicide exonerations amounted to only 7% of total homicide exoneration cases, no-crime sexual assault exonerations totaled 14%, and more than half of drug crime exonerations – 55% – involved cases where no crime occurred.

The report cited a variety of factors behind exonerations in no-crime cases, most commonly because perjury or false accusations led to the conviction. According to the Registry, such factors occurred in 76% of no-crime exonerations. In many adult sex cases, for example, an alleged rape was discovered to have been consensual sex, in some instances to cover up infidelity by a spouse. In most drug crime exonerations, the report said, perjury or false testimony often took the form of drugs planted on a defendant by a witness, a police informant or a police officer.

Further, in at least 37% of no-crime cases, one or more accusers recanted their allegations after conviction.

According to the Registry, the high rate of exonerations in child sex abuse cases was attributed to the reporting of the supposed crime days, weeks, months or even years after the alleged abuse, with no other witnesses than the complainant. In such cases, the Registry noted, it was too late to find identifiable physical evidence or other information bearing on the credibility of the accusation.

Virtually every no-crime homicide exoneration resulted from officials mistakenly classifying deaths as murders that were later attributed to suicide or an accident, including eight arson-homicides and 10 cases involving Shaken Baby Syndrome, the report stated.

In a separate study, Georgia State University School of Law professor Russell Covey gathered data from two mass exonerations resulting from major police scandals, one involving the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and another in Tulia, Texas. Both scandals resulted in numerous exonerations, virtually all attributed to police perjury, in contrast to most other exonerations which have involved faulty forensics, eyewitness misidentification, jailhouse informants and false confessions.

Covey’s study concluded that such mass exonerations suggest that the number of false convictions obtained through police perjury and misconduct are likely vastly underreported, because, at least in the Rampart and Tulia cases, more than 80% of the wrongful convictions resulted from guilty pleas. Covey noted that while greater attention has been given to DNA and eyewitness identification-based exonerations, “police misconduct is a potentially significant cause of wrongful convictions in its own right.” He recommended that more resources be devoted to examining police procedural reforms.

In general, even though no-crime exonerations receive less public attention than those in which someone else committed the crime, the percentage of no-crime cases among all wrongful convictions has been steadily increasing, according to the Registry. In 2005, a report of 340 exonerations found fewer than 4% involved no crime being committed; the Registry’s first report, for the years 1989 to 2012, listed 18%. The November 2013 report cited 22% of the recorded exonerations as no-crime cases.

As of December 2015, the Registry listed 1,721 exonerations nationwide; of those, 511 – almost 30% – were listed as cases in which no crime occurred.

Additionally, in 2015 the Registry reported what it called “a substantial increase in the number of Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs)” – units in District Attorneys’ offices that review and investigate post-conviction claims of innocence. The number of CIUs nearly doubled, from nine in 2013 to 15 in 2014, with CIUs contributing to 49 exonerations in 2014 compared to only 41 exonerations in all previous years combined. In many cases, the Registry noted, CIUs have helped reverse convictions fraudulently obtained through police misconduct; notable examples have resulted in media coverage in Massachusetts, Texas and New York City.



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