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National Registry of Exonerations Report: Blacks Suffer More False Convictions

by Derek Gilna

On March 7, 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations published a report that found African-Americans are much more likely than whites to be wrongfully convicted and spend more time in prison before being exonerated. The report noted that although blacks represent just 13% of the U.S. population, they constitute 47% of the approximately 2,000 exonerated individuals listed in the National Registry.

The registry was created in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, and provides detailed information about every known confirmed exoneration in the United States since 1989. The cases catalogued in the registry include those in which a person was wrongfully convicted and later cleared based upon evidence of their innocence.

The report, which focused on cases involving murder, sexual assault and drug crimes, was produced jointly by the National Registry and the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine. According to the study, “There is no one explanation for the heavy concentration of black defendants among those convicted of crimes they did not commit ... [the] causes ... run from inevitable consequences of patterns in crime and punishment to deliberate acts of racism.”

 One of the factors cited was the high murder rate in the black community, as well as the fact that “A black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict.” Additionally, the report noted, “police enforce drug laws more vigorously against African-Americans than against members of the white majority, despite strong evidence that both groups use drugs at equivalent rates.” Faulty eyewitness identifications that disproportionately affected black defendants played a role, too.

African-Americans who were wrongfully convicted of murder served three more years in prison before being exonerated and released, on average, than white prisoners.

The report also addressed “hidden” crimes where defendants are falsely accused and convicted, the true scope of which is unknown. “Most by far remain hidden – false convictions far outnumber exonerations – and we have too little information to estimate that hidden figure,” except in death penalty cases. “Because death sentences have a far higher rate of exoneration than other crimes,” the study continued, “we have far more detailed data on them than any other category of criminal sentences,” and in such cases racial disparities are most evident.

The National Registry report attempted to explain the role of police misconduct in framing defendants charged with drug-related offenses. Noting that systematic racial profiling and more frequent police stops and searches have resulted in more blacks being arrested, the study concluded that “of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful.”

The authors of the report said they hoped the data collected by the National Registry of Exonerations will contribute to reforms in the criminal justice system to eliminate the pattern of racial discrimination in arrests, prosecutions and wrongful convictions.

“It’s no surprise that in this area, as in almost any other that has to do with criminal justice in the United States, race is the big factor,” said University of Michigan law professor Samuel R. Gross, who serves as a senior editor for the National Registry. 

Sources:,, The New York Times

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