According to the National Registry of Exonerations’ annual report, 151 people were exonerated in the U.S. in 2018. Together, they spent 1,639 years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit — an average of about 11 years each.
Unfortunately, that was a record. The Registry, which tracks all U.S. exonerations since 1989, reports that U.S. exonerees have spent a total of 20,000 years in prison. All those years for crimes they didn’t commit — or crimes that never even occurred.
Indeed, in 70 of the 2018 exonerations (over 46 percent), the underlying crime was found never to have happened at all. One involved a man who was sent to death row before being exonerated. It turned out that the child he had allegedly killed had more probably died in a car accident.
Troublingly, the Registry reports that most of the 2018 exonerees had something else in common: official misconduct in their cases. Police or prosecutorial misconduct was documented in 107 of the exonerations (nearly 71 percent), including 80 percent of the homicide cases where the defendant was exonerated.
Police corruption in Chicago played a key role in false convictions
Some exonerations were driven by the discovery of specific bad actors in the criminal justice system. For example, in 2017, 15 criminal convictions were tossed out after it was discovered that disgraced Chicago police sergeant Ronald Watts had been running a protection racket. He and his unit planted drugs on people who refused to pay for protection.
Another 31 people were exonerated last year after being targeted by Watts, and another 14 have already been exonerated this year. Illinois had the most exonerations of any state in 2018 — 49 in total.
The situation in Chicago was unusual enough that it changed the way the National Registry of Exonerations operates. Previously, they had not counted mass exonerations due to corruption as part of their count of overall exonerations. However, the Chicago situation convinced the Registry that even mass exonerations require individualized investigations.
Other highlights from the report
In nineteen cases — 17 of which involved murder convictions — the defendant was exonerated even after having falsely confessed to the crime.
Two of the longest-serving exonerees in history hit the Registry’s pages this year. Richard Phillips was exonerated after 45 years in prison for a 1972 murder conviction. Wilbert Jones was exonerated after 44 years in prison for sexual assault. In both cases, the testimony used to convict them was highly questionable.
Less than half of those who are exonerated received any compensation from the state that wrongly convicted them. Nevertheless, governments have paid out $2.2 billion in compensation for wrongful convictions.