When the University of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law School announced their joint project—the National Registry of Exonerations (here)—earlier this year on May 21, the initial tally of exonerations in the United States since 1989 was 891. Today, five months later, the number of exonerated in the registry is 1,000. No one knows how high the number will go. The only certainty is that this milestone will soon be surpassed.
Accompanying the Registry was a comprehensive report, “Exonerations in the United States, 1989-2012” (here) by Samuel R. Gross and Michael Shaffer. The writers expressly welcomed information about exonerations not yet included in the Registry: “One important conclusion of the report is that there are many more exonerations that have not yet occurred and old ones that we do not know about. We hope that readers and visitors to the site will let us know about cases that we have missed…”
The report underscores the writers’ views that these cases are still the tip of the iceberg. “These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about,” they wrote.
The rapid growth in the tally supports this belief shared by many who have been involved in innocence work.
The Innocence Project’s tally of DNA-proven exonerations recently topped the milestone number of 300 (today it is 301). The Registry includes these but also exoneration cases that did not have DNA as their proof of innocence.
The report defines “exoneration” as a legal concept. “It means that a defendant who was convicted of a crime was later relieved of all legal consequences of that conviction through a decision by a prosecutor, a governor or a court, after new evidence of his or her innocence was discovered.” The Registry does not include cases in which the defendant is innocent of the conviction but played some role in the crime or cases in which the conviction was reversed on legal error—even if the conviction was reversed for insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The National Registry is more than a listing of known exonerations. It includes details about the cases in a searchable database, an unprecedented tool for researching known wrongful convictions. The database documents important demographic, geographic, and other details about the exonerated person, including name, age, and race as well as details about the crime, the state location, the sentence, conviction year, exoneration year, and whether or not DNA was involved in the exoneration.
Known contributors are attributed to each case. These include mistaken eyewitness identification, false confession, perjury or false accusation, false or misleading forensic evidence, official misconduct, and inadequate legal defense.
Tags enable the viewer to search the body of wrongful convictions by, for example, gender (65 of the exonerated are female). Other tags include Co-Defendent Confessed, Child Sex Abuse Hysteria case, Federal case, No Crime case, Guilty Plea case, Posthumous exoneration, Shaken Baby Syndrome.
The National Registry will continue to not only document exonerations but to shed light on how wrongful convictions happen and how we can reduce their tragic and costly occurrence.
The report’s conclusions are noteworthy:
“The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis. We don’t know how often they occur or what types of cases are most common. Most false convictions never see the light of day. We know only about the rare ones that are discovered and corrected (at least in part) by exoneration – and we miss many cases in which innocent defendants are exonerated, probably most. We do know that the more we look, the more exonerations we find, and the more varied they are.
The most important goal of the criminal justice system is accuracy: to identify and condemn the guilty, and to clear the innocent. The most effective way to do so is by careful, honest and open- minded work before conviction, in the investigation and prosecution of criminal charges.
The next most important task is to remain open minded after conviction about the possibility of error. The overwhelming majority of convicted defendants are guilty. Most never dispute their guilt and few ever present substantial post-conviction evidence of innocence. When that does happen, however, it should be taken seriously. We know of many exonerated defendants who were imprisoned for years, even decades after they presented strong evidence of their innocence. We cannot prevent all false convictions, but we must not compound these tragedies by stubbornness or arrogance or, worst of all, indifference.
The National Registry of Exonerations is the largest database of its kind ever assembled. We have already learned a great deal from it. In particular, it is now clear that false convictions are not one sort of problem but several, and that the solutions that might prevent them vary drastically from one context to another: For homicides, the biggest problem is perjury and false accusation, most often by supposed eyewitnesses, with official misconduct a close second. False convictions in adult rape cases, on the other hand, are primarily based on eyewitness mistakes – more often than not, mistakes by white victims falsely identifying black defendants. Most false convictions in child sex abuse cases, by contrast, are for fabricated crimes that never occurred. And so forth.
We will learn more as the Registry matures and we gather data about a larger number of exonerations across a wider range of settings. The more we learn about false convictions the better able we will be to prevent them, or failing that, to identify and correct them after the fact.”
The nation is indebted to Samuel Gross, Michael Shaffer, both University of Michigan and Northwestern law schools and many individuals, especially Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law, law students and graduates, and others who made important contributions as indicated in the report’s acknowledgements, including the organizations that supported this project.
The National Registry of Exonerations is sober reading. It documents tragic stumbles of the justice system. The transparency it seeks to provide, however, will be an invaluable tool in the effort to advance our criminal justice system toward its true and full promise.