Study: At Least 2,000 People Wrongfully Convicted In 23 Years
Innocent people have gone to jail, and some of them are still sitting there.
A new study has unveiled at least 2,000 incidents over the past 23 years in which people were convicted of a crime that they didn’t commit:
More than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in the United States in the past 23 years, according to a new archive compiled at two universities.
There is no official record-keeping system for exonerations of convicted criminals in the country, so academics set one up. The new national registry, or database, painstakingly assembled by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, is the most complete list of exonerations ever compiled.
The database compiled and analyzed by the researchers contains information on 873 exonerations for which they have the most detailed evidence. The researchers are aware of nearly 1,200 other exonerations, for which they have less data.
They found that those 873 exonerated defendants spent a combined total of more than 10,000 years in prison, an average of more than 11 years each. Nine out of 10 of them are men and half are African-American.
Nearly half of the 873 exonerations were homicide cases, including 101 death sentences. Over one-third of the cases were sexual assaults.
DNA evidence led to exoneration in nearly one-third of the 416 homicides and in nearly two-thirds of the 305 sexual assaults.
At first glance, you might say that 2,000 wrongful convictions over 23 years, but that only lasts as long as it takes you to realize that the data that the two universities based their study on was limited, and that some jurisdictions reported numbers that quite simply aren’t believable:
The overall registry/list begins at the start of 1989. It gives an unprecedented view of the scope of the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States and the figure of more than 2,000 exonerations “is a good start,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions.
“We know there are many more that we haven’t found,” added University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, the editor of the newly opened National Registry of Exonerations.
Counties such as San Bernardino in California and Bexar County in Texas are heavily populated, yet seemingly have no exonerations, a circumstance that the academics say cannot possibly be correct.
The registry excludes at least 1,170 additional defendants. Their convictions were thrown out starting in 1995 amid the periodic exposures of 13 major police scandals around the country. In all the cases, police officers fabricated crimes, usually by planting drugs or guns on innocent defendants.
Regarding the 1,170 additional defendants who were left out of the registry, “we have only sketchy information about most of these cases,” the report said. “Some of these group exonerations are well known; most are comparatively obscure. We began to notice them by accident, as a byproduct of searches for individual cases.”
Perhaps the most significant piece of information about this database, as limited as it may be, is that it makes quite c ear that wrongful convictions and the factors that lead to them aren’t limited to high-profile cases. When exoneration cases do get publicity, it’s usually in situations involving rape and murder, of course. Here at OTB, we’ve made note of three death penalty cases from the State of Texas alone — Cameron Todd Willingham, Claude Jones, and Carlos DeLuna — where men were executed for crimes they didn’t commit. In the State of Mississippi, Cory Maye spent ten years on death row for a capital murder conviction tainted by racism, improper testimony from a corrupt Medical Examiner, and a case of mistaken identity by police conducting a no-knock drug raid. Beyond those cases, we’ve all seen more than one story about a man, and it’s usually always a man and an African American man at that, who has spent decades in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. What this study makes clear, though, is that it isn’t just rape and murder that leads to improper convictions, and that the factors that bring it about are rather unsurprising:
In half of the 873 exonerations studied in detail, the most common factor leading to false convictions was perjured testimony or false accusations. Forty-three percent of the cases involved mistaken eyewitness identification, and 24 percent of the cases involved false or misleading forensic evidence.
In two out of three homicides, perjury or false accusation was the most common factor leading to false conviction. In four out of five sexual assaults, mistaken eyewitness identification was the leading cause of false conviction.
Seven percent of the exonerations were drug, white-collar and other nonviolent crimes, 5 percent were robberies and 5 percent were other types of violent crimes.
The problem of faulty eyewitness identification is one that has been well-known in the criminal justice field for years, even though most lay observers seem to think that, out side of DNA, it is one of the most reliable types of evidence presented at trial. The reality, as I noted, is far different, as the Supreme Court of New Jersey acknowledged when it completely revamped the Court rules for eyewitness testimony after an exhaustive study that showed just how unreliable it can be:
“Study after study revealed a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” Chief Justice Rabner wrote. “From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real.
“Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country.”
The decision listed more than a dozen factors that judges should consider in evaluating the reliability of a witness’s identification, including whether a weapon was visible during a crime of short duration, the amount of time the witness had to observe the event, how close the witness was to the suspect, whether the witness was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race and the length of time that had elapsed between the crime and the identification.
Chief Justice Rabner said the court had avoided “bright-line rules that would lead to suppression of reliable evidence any time a law enforcement officer makes a mistake.”
The ruling instead allowed for a much more complete exploration of the factors involved in an identification “to preclude sufficiently unreliable identifications from being presented and to aid juries in weighing identification evidence.”
Chief Justice Rabner noted that in the vast majority of cases, identification evidence would still be presented to a jury.
“The threshold for suppression remains high,” he wrote. And because, in most cases, juries will continue to determine the reliability of eyewitness testimony, Chief Justice Rabner added, “it is essential to educate jurors about factors that can lead to misidentifications.”
Indeed, given the fact that this study found that nearly half of the wrongful convictions this study dealt with involved mistaken eyewitness identification, one would think that this reform that is long overdue throughout the country.
It would be interesting to see this study expanded to see just how big a problem wrongful convictions actually is, and perhaps to add into it some study of people who ended up confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. Given the fact that some jurisdictions don’t even keep data on this matter, though, that won’t be an easy task. Suffice it to say, though, that it seems rather self-evident that the number of wrongful convictions over the past two decades has been far more than 2,000. What this study does make clear, though, as limited as it is, is that we need to seriously look at the way we trial crimes in this country and ask ourselves whether its worth ruining the lives of so many people just to make it more “efficient.”