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Report Shows Official Misconduct Responsible for More than Half of Exonerations

The report totaled 129 exonerations in 2020 across 27 states, plus the District of Columbia and the federal system. But those numbers always go up, as more data rolls in over the years. The top five states with the most exonerations were Illinois (22), Michigan (20), Texas (15), New York (12), and Pennsylvania (12). Illinois led the way because of the disgraced former Chicago Police sergeant, Ronald Watts, who planted drugs on numerous people to extort money from them. Watts and his corrupt gang of cops have so far been the basis for at least 17 exonerations, and that number is expected to keep rising as more cases are uncovered. Most of Michigan’s exonerations were in Detroit, where an active Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) has exposed most of the state’s wrongful convictions.

Government misconduct is defined in the report as encompassing a wide range of official actions, such as police threatening defendants and witnesses, falsified forensic evidence, prosecutors hiding favorable evidence from the accused, and police lying under oath in court, among other misconduct. The frequency of the behavior largely depended on the type of crime at issue, but prosecutors withholding favorable evidence was the most common misconduct resulting in exonerations.

Since the NRE began tracking exonerations in 1989, there have been 2,737 exonerations recorded. Half of those exonerations were because of official misconduct. In 2020 alone, over two-thirds of the 129 exonerations were because of misconduct by government personnel. In some categories of crime, official misconduct accounted for all of the exonerations. For example, every exoneration in a sex crime in 2020 involved a false accusation that led to a false conviction.

The top three categories have historically been homicides (1094), drugs (371), and child sex abuse cases (293). But by including all sexual assault exonerations (341) with child sexual abuse exonerations, that category jumps to a solid number two spot, well ahead of drug exonerations. But homicide is perhaps the best-known category of exonerations because of the spotlight placed on these high-profile crimes. More resources are dedicated to those offenses, including postconviction proceedings where official misconduct is often exposed.

Innocence organizations, like the Innocence Project, and CIUs have played, and continue to play, a huge role in exonerations. Half of the exonerations in 2020 were from CIUs in just 18 counties. The rest of the exonerations were because of innocence organizations. In fact, those organizations helped account for one in four exonerations since 1989. However, CIUs are a rather new concept with more states embracing the idea. Since the first CIU exoneration in 2001, those agencies have averaged 61 a year. And CIUs mainly focus on homicide and drug cases, unlike the innocence organizations, which focus on a broader range of offenses.

The total number of years lost due to false convictions was 20,000 in 2018, though the report says that by 2021 it will reach the sobering number of 25,000 years lost by innocent people caged for crimes they did not commit. This represents an average of nine years in prison for each exoneration since 1989, but homicide exonerations often take longer. Much longer. The average time wasted in prison for a falsely convicted defendant in a homicide case is an average of 15 years. This is compared to an 11-year average for all other exonerations. Some homicide exonerees have spent as much as 45 years in prison—for a crime they didn’t commit.

Getting paid for that lost time is often difficult or impossible. By the end of 2020, only about 44% of exonerees were able to be compensated, either by filing lawsuits or through the state’s compensation fund, the report stated. As of early 2021, only 36 states provide an avenue for compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned. Idaho became the 36th state in early 2021 to provide the ability for compensation. There are also federal statutes providing for relief for those falsely convicted in federal court. Many of these statutes also exclude innocent people who are wrongly convicted from being compensated.

The NRE does not count mass exonerations, such as when a scandal ends up exonerating hundreds or thousands of people falsely convicted because of official misconduct. Two situations in Massachusetts recently provide clear examples of cases where people were falsely convicted but were not included in the NRE’s statistics. This occurred when two separate state drug lab investigations uncovered that lab techs were falsifying forensic drug tests in favor of the police. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts eventually tossed over 32,000 drug convictions because of the scandal. While clearly government misconduct that resulted in false convictions, the NRE does not include these kinds of incidents in its main database.

However, the NRE noted that these types of extreme mass exonerations will be captured by their third and newest database called the Groups Registry. This database collects data on exonerations based on common characteristics of the exonerees and errors made, rather than on a case-by-case basis like its main registry.

The NRE said it expects the number of exonerations to grow in future reports. It credits the increase in resources, in large part because of the establishment of the CIUs in many jurisdictions the last few years. It pointed to states like Virginia, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, that now have state-wide CIUs (rather than county-specific), providing the opportunity to assess cases in smaller jurisdictions that have lacked the ability to do so on their own.

“The human faces reflect stories of marriages and relationships that fell apart—or never happened. Love was lost or extinguished as family and friends mistakenly concluded, perhaps, that their loved ones really were guilty,” the report said. “Only these wrongfully convicted people can truly understand the loneliness, pain, indignity, danger, and hopelessness of life in prison. The Registry continues to tell these stories to shed light on the wrongfully convicted and to honor them for keeping hope alive.”

The growing number of exonerations give new meaning to the term “good enough for government work.” 


Source: National Registry of Exonerations, 2020 Report.

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