Last year was record-breaking for exonerations of innocent people convicted of crimes in the United States, a new report indicates.
The report, “Exonerations in 2013,” was released Feb. 4 by the National Registry of Exonerations. Researchers found 87 exonerations recorded in 2013 were more than in any of the past 25 years. About one-third of those (27) were in cases where no crime was committed.
The Registry had been in the works for a few years as a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. It lists information on cases from 1989 through 2014 in which people were wrongly convicted of crimes and later cleared of all charges based on new evidence.
The Registry went public in May 2012 and the more researchers look, the more they find, said Maurice Possley, senior researcher for the Registry. Until it was formed, there place collected this kind of data, he said.
“There’s 1,300 cases and exponentially every one of those is a story of a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy not just for the wrongfully convicted but for family members and for others, victims who find out later that the real perpetrator had gone on to commit other crimes,” Mr. Possley told The Final Call.
The report indicates that contrary to popular belief, the number of exonerations involving DNA has gradually declined since 2005, and only represented about a fifth of the total number of exonerations in 2013.
In the same period, the number of non-DNA exonerations per year doubled from 34 in 2005 to 69 in 2013, the report read.
Fifteen of the 87 known exonerations in 2013 occurred in cases where defendants were convicted after pleading guilty. The majority of exonerations in every year studied were in homicide and sexual assault cases.
There were 40 murder exonerations in 2013 (including one of a prisoner sentenced to death) and 18 that involved rape or other sexual assault.
Mr. Possley explained the victims came forward and admitted they lied in those cases and in others, such as Nicole Harris’, murders were proven to be accidents.
The Chicago mother was convicted in 2005 of murdering her four-year-old son Jaquari. She served seven years of a 30-year sentence before release last February.
She was exonerated in 2013 after evidence revealed police coerced her into confessing and that her son’s brother saw him wrap an elastic band around his neck while he was playing “Spiderman,” according to the Registry.
The report listed the following 10 states with the most recorded exonerations in 2013: Texas (13), Illinois (9), New York (8), Washington (7), California (6), Michigan (5), Missouri (5), Connecticut (4), Georgia (4), and Virginia (4). The states with the most recorded exonerations are not necessarily those where most false convictions have occurred, researchers noted.
Thirty-three known exonerations in 2013 were obtained with law enforcement cooperation. According to researchers, police and prosecutors appear to be taking increasingly active roles in reinvestigating possible false convictions, and to be more responsive to claims of innocence from convicted defendants.
Mr. Possley said it’s encouraging to see law enforcement—including prosecutors and police—be a bit more proactive and willing to having an open mind that wrongful convictions can happen. Finding the truth should be the common goal, but there is still some resistance, he said.
“Chicago has had a long time resistance to this. I see some of the same things in L.A. County and Orange County,” he stated.
When defense lawyers, Innocence Projects or even defendants alert prosecutors to mistakes, historically the response has been the jury and courts have spoken, Mr. Possley said.
Some prosecutors fight against motions to have DNA testing done, but why? Mr. Possley asked. “It’s coming from this historical position of we got it right. Don’t question our authority,” Mr. Possley explained.
The ability to DNA test for more than two decades has provided clear lessons and sent a clear message, he continued.
“Witnesses lie. Police lie. Defense lawyers don’t do their work. Prosecutors hide evidence. Forensics testing makes mistakes or they intentionally mislead. These things happen,” Mr. Possley said.
Craig Watkins, the first Black elected as Dallas County District Attorney, created the Conviction Integrity Unit, which has reviewed more than 400 cases. To date, 33 people have been exonerated.
“They’ve had more DNA exonerations than any other county in the country just embracing it and more counties are starting to do this,” Mr. Possley said.
He added, “They have to get past the feeling that making a mistake is a sign of weakness, admitting you made a mistake is a sign of weakness. Nobody wants to convict an innocent person, but who wants to admit that they did? That’s hard.”