According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 139 people were exonerated of crimes in the U.S. last year. Some 2,100 have been exonerated since 1989, when DNA evidence was first used to exonerate someone. Today, people are being found innocent using a variety of methods that don’t always involve DNA, but the principle remains the same: Sometimes, the criminal justice system convicts innocent people.
Due process and other protections for defendants are supposed to keep innocent people from being convicted. Can the Exoneration Registry help us understand what went wrong?
The Registry recently released two reports about trends in exonerations, both from last year and over time. The reports highlight some interesting and important findings.
Professional exoneration organizations such as the Innocence Project handled more than half the cases last year that resulted in exoneration. These organizations included conviction integrity units within some prosecutors’ offices. At least 33 conviction integrity units exist around the U.S., along with about 52 private advocacy groups.
“It makes you really wonder what would the feelings on exoneration be, and how many would we see, if there were more of these organizations,” commented the editor of the Registry.
The average exonerated defendant spent 10.6 years behind bars. The longest time served by a 2017 exoneree was 41 years — Ladura Watkins was falsely convicted of murder based on microscopic hair evidence, a type of evidence the FBI has now discredited.
Well over half the wrongful convictions were due to official misconduct. Of the 139 exonerations last year, 84 involved convictions brought about by police or prosecutorial misconduct such as illegally withholding evidence of the defendant’s innocence, falsifying test results or tampering with witnesses.
Some jurisdictions show more activity than others. Harris County, Texas, has been responsible for dozens of questionable convictions for drug possession. Over the past three years, prosecutors digging through a backlog of complaints have exonerated at least 100 people of possessing illegal drugs.
In almost half of the cases, no actual crime was committed. The 66 no-crime exonerations included nine imagined murders, 11 false allegations of child sex abuse and dozens of false drug possession convictions. For example, a former death-row inmate named Rodricus Crawford had been convicted of homicide in the death of his infant son. He has now been exonerated when it was shown that the child had more likely died of sepsis.
We should all be alarmed when hundreds of people are being exonerated. That means that hundreds of innocent people have been taken from their homes, jobs and families and sent to jail or prison for no good reason. Police, prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and judges all have crucial roles to play in preventing wrongful convictions.