According to a report released today by the National Registry of Exonerations, for the first time, in 2012 police and prosecutors cooperated or assisted in more than half of the nation’s exonerations (criminal cases in which a person was wrongfully convicted and later cleared of all charges). Of 63 known exonerations last year, law enforcement initiated or cooperated in 54 percent (34 cases), which reflects a sharp increase in historic official support. The National Registry stressed this new record, among other significant emerging trends, in its official update for 2012.
In 2008, the previous high, prosecutors or police assisted in 39 percent of 57 known exonerations. Since 1989 (the year the Registry begins its data reporting) prosecutors and police cooperated in 30 percent of identified exonerations (317 of 1050 exonerations at year-end).
Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, editor of the Registry, and author of the “2012 Update” said, “I think this is highly important.”
Professor Gross noted that the increase in prosecutor and police involvement in exonerations may reflect in part changes in state laws that facilitate post-conviction DNA testing as well as the emergence of Conviction Integrity Units in several District Attorney’s offices around the country. It may also reflect a growing view among prosecutors of the possibility of false convictions at trial.
“We see a clear trend,” he said. “Prosecutors and police are more open to re-investigating cases and clearing names of innocent people who were wrongfully convicted. This is as it should be. The purpose of law enforcement is to seek truth and pursue justice. I’m glad to see they are now doing so more often after conviction, to help correct some of the terrible mistakes we sometimes make.”
Other highlights of the 39-page Update:
• In 2012, 63 exonerations were recorded—36 murder cases (57%) including two in which the defendants were sentenced to death; 15 rape cases (24%); and 12 others—making the year second only to 2009 in which there were 75 exonerations. (Because the Registry has added cases in 2013, the current totals are 67 for 2012 and 76 for 2009).
• Among 2012 exonerations, 30% involved DNA; 8% of the exonerees were women (5/63); 57% were African American (36/63).
• The total exonerations from 1989 until year-end 2012 was 1050. (As of today, the total is 1089).
• The Registry added 178 cases from March 1, 2012 through December 31, 2012. Two-thirds of these were older, pre-2012 cases identified in the ongoing effort to include all known exonerations.
• The Registry—noting that the most populous state, California, had a comparatively low rate per capita in exonerations—focused on the state and consequently added 40 new exonerations, which elevated California to the state with the most exonerations in the nation.
• The ongoing rapid addition of exonerations over all years confirms the Registry’s claims that the exonerations known are only a fraction of those that have occurred.
• The report includes nine examples of recently added exonerations.
In addition to the growth in cooperation from police and prosecutors, the report noted these emerging trends and observations:
• Official cooperation is least common among exonerations for highly aggravated and publicized crimes.
• The number of exonerations in cases in which the defendant pled guilty has increased over the past two reports (March 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012) from 8% (71/873) to over 9% (99/1050).
• The proportion of exonerations in rape and murder exonerations dropped from 83% on March 1 to 80% on December 31, 2012.
• The proportion of DNA cases declined, from 35% to 33% in these two reports.
• The known exonerations in cases where no crime occurred increased from 15% to 19% over the two reports.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, invites additions and corrections to its dynamic database.
The full report can be found (here).
Visit the National Registry of Exonerations (here).
Special Note: At 1:00 p.m. EST today, Wednesday, April 3, Professor Gross and Maurice Possley, the Registry’s lead writer/investigator and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, will host a Twitter Q & A on their findings. The media and the public are invited to participate by following #NRE12 or #innocence or @exonerationlist.