The National Registry of Exonerations, a dynamic database of known exonerations in the United States since 1989, recently reported another noteworthy milestone: the 600th exoneration for murder. Of 1,348 known exonerations as of April 8, 2014, nearly 45 percent have been for murder. This disturbing statistic, once unimaginable to most Americans, supports the assumption that countless wrongful convictions are yet unknown and the conclusion that Americans should strongly support efforts to improve the criminal justice system.
Above all, the 600th exoneration for murder confirms the “tip of the iceberg” characterization often referenced by those who have researched known exonerations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations reported (here) that of an estimated 1,214,462 violent crimes occurring nationwide in 2012, murder accounted for just 1.2 percent. The fact that nearly 45 percent of known exonerations come from a crime category that is a sliver of all violent crimes strongly suggests that countless others have been wrongfully convicted of crimes in cases in which the conviction errors remain undiscovered because they are less likely for many reasons to be reconsidered, reinvestigated, and revealed post-conviction.
This is not a new understanding. Samuel R. Gross, professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School and co-founder and editor of the National Registry, provided in a 2005 report, “Exonerations in the United States, 1989 Through 2003,” a tally of all known exonerations in this fifteen-year period at that time: 340 exonerations, of which 144 were cleared by DNA evidence and 196 by other means. When the cases were further analyzed, Gross found that “96 percent of the exonerations were for murder and rape or sexual assault — the crimes that usually have DNA-related evidence — even though these crimes represent only about 2 percent of felony convictions.”
Walter Lomax, the most recent person exonerated of murder on the National Registry, has the distinction of being 600th on this unenviable list. The case report written by Maurice Possley (here) indicates that Lomax was convicted of the 1967 murder of Robert Brewer, the night manager of a food market in Baltimore City, Maryland. Lomax’s determined efforts to contest his conviction and flaws in the case attracted the support of Centurion Ministries, a non-profit organization that has been a pioneer in correcting wrongful convictions.
Consistent with a recent trend reported by the Registry of fewer exonerations being achieved with DNA, Lomax’s wrongful conviction was corrected through re-investigation and the discovery of new and unrevealed evidence of his innocence.
A 2006 motion for a new trial presented evidence that just ten hours before the Brewer murder, Lomax had been treated for injuries sustained as a crime victim himself. He had been jumped and beaten by a group of youths. Lomax sustained injuries that placed him in John Hopkins Hospital’s clinic for treatment of a stab wound requiring “a 15-layer plastic splint” on his right arm and hand. He had difficulty walking for weeks. Lomax would have been physically unable to run from police as the perpetrator ran from the murder scene. Moreover, none of the eyewitnesses who misidentified Lomax mentioned that the perpetrator had a cast on his arm, certainly a distinguishing piece of apparel.
On December 13, 2006, Baltimore City Court Judge Gale Rasin found that Lomax’s trial attorney had provided constitutionally ineffective defense by failing to call witnesses that could have testified regarding his injuries and that could have elevated the fact that Lomax did not fit witnesses’ earliest description of the perpetrator. Lomax was sentenced to time served and was released from prison, but his conviction remained.
According to the National Registry’s case report, two new initiatives paved the way for Lomax’s exoneration. In 2009, a new Maryland law enabled defendants with claims of new evidence to request a court hearing, and, in 2012, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein established a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate worthy claims of wrongful conviction.
The Conviction Integrity Unit’s investigation revealed the discovery of several pieces of exculpatory information, known by the prosecution at the time of the trial, that should have been shared with the defense and that would have “created a substantial or significant possibility” that Lomax’s lawyer would have been able to offer a defense leading to an acquittal.
As is often the case, the National Registry noted a combination of common contributors—in this case mistaken eyewitness identification, official misconduct, and inadequate legal defense—that worked together to prompt the jury’s mistaken conclusion and a miscarriage of justice.
Notably, and consistent with a promising trend of increasing cooperation of prosecutors in exonerations, the prosecution joined the defense’s motion that Lomax’s conviction be vacated. On March 21, 2014, the prosecution concurred with the defense’s petition for a writ of actual innocence, and on April 2, 2014, “Lomax’s convictions were vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges.”
Lomax served 38 years in prison and waited 46 years for his name to be cleared of a conviction for a murder he did not commit.
Lomax and 599 others exonerated of murder suffered tragic miscarriages of justice with costs beyond calculation. The families of the wrongfully convicted were also victims of unacceptable error. The lives forever changed by these miscarriages include the known and unknown victims of crimes perpetrated by the actual criminals who evaded and escaped justice in these cases.
Yet Lomax’s case also provides evidence of some progress. There was a time when an exoneration was headline news. Today, exonerations are added to the National Registry frequently, and often without fanfare. While frequency has lessened the news appeal of wrongful conviction, it has also debunked the myth that our system never convicts an innocent person. This growing recognition should soon put those who obstruct best practices and reforms in criminal justice on the wrong side of history.
Each exoneration represents a hard-won victory against nearly insurmountable odds, but each also opens hearts and minds in ways that should encourage better reception from the system to worthy claims of wrongful conviction.
Laws and provisions that provide the means for revisiting such cases, as witnessed in the Lomax case, offer pilots and models to address conviction errors. Best practices in criminal justice reform, now long-articulated and recommended, must be adopted in every state to prevent conviction errors in the first place. Perhaps most important, prosecutors who have increasingly supported and even led efforts to correct injustices—prosecutors who exemplify the “minister of justice model” as opposed to those committed to just winning or defending verdicts—are to be commended and supported by voters.
The 600th exoneration for murder is an unwanted black mark on American criminal justice, but it also marks a time for cautious optimism. More than a wake-up call, this milestone should accelerate our best efforts to more accurately deliver on America’s noble promise of justice for all.