A new report by a national prisoner-rights organization says that once again the state of Texas led the nation in 2013 in exonerations, with 13 cases, and Illinois and New York were not far behind with 9 and 8, respectively. Although this is the highest figure in 25 years according to available data, it still represents only the known or acknowledged cases where defendants were wrongfully convicted.
This dubious distinction comes into sharper focus, when you consider that over 1 million criminal cases are processed in Texas every year, and shows there is still much to be done, a fact acknowledged by Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
Exoneration figures have been tracked for the past several years by the authors of the new report, the National Registry of Exonerations, a program formally launched in 2012 by two U.S. law schools, the University of Michigan and Northwestern Law Schools. The group’s most recent study shows that nationwide 85 of the wrongfully-convicted were cleared and released in the past year. According to the same report, the figure has steadily increased in the past several years, and totals 1309 since records began to be compiled in 1989. Sadly, the average period of wrongful incarceration in those cases averaged 12 years.
According to the Registry, in the past 25 years over 60% of wrongful convictions were as a result of official misconduct, either by the police or prosecutor, that 17% of those exonerations were of people who had pleaded guilty, rather than face the uncertainty of trial and a long sentence. The study also claimed that most confessions occurred as a result of abusive or coercive police interrogations.
The editor of the Registry and co-author of the report, Samuel Gross, said, “There are many false convictions that we don’t know about. The exonerations we know about are only the tip of the iceberg.”
Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director of the Texas Defender Service, agreed, but also noted that there was a positive trend in that an increasing number of exonerations occurred in cases other than murder and sexual assault, where DNA was not a factor. She also commented on the necessity of competent legal counsel in all criminal cases, saying that “inadequate legal defense” was a factor in four the 13 exonerations highlighted in the report: “Every time the court doesn’t give you the resources you need for investigations, you lose the tools necessary to prove your client either wasn’t guilty or deserves mercy.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Texas said that exonerations were a “shameful category” for Texas to lead the nation. “Unfortunately, in everyday Texas, quality of justice is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford,” he said. He might as well have been speaking for every defendant in the entire country.
One positive trend is that many district attorneys and states attorneys have created internal departments to actively review previous convictions in response to allegations of wrongful convictions. We can only hope that this trend continues to accelerate.
See: “Texas leads Nation in 2013 Exonerations,” by Edgar Walters, www.texastribune.org, 2014.
See also: www.law.umich.edu/spe;cial/exoneration/Documents/Exonerations_in_2013_Report.
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