National Registry of Exonerations June Report: Record-Breaking Pace in 2014, Causal Insights

The June 2014 update of the National Registry of Exonerations has reported 50 exonerations in the first half of 2014, which is on pace to be record-breaking and to exceed the 87 exonerations reported at year-end in 2013. Each year’s total is a dynamic number. The tally for 2013, for example, had recently increased to 89 as exonerations from the year continue to be discovered. As of June 27, 2014, the Registry was reporting 1,385 exonerations since 1989. As of today, the total has advanced to 1,394.

While these numbers are important, they are a high-level summary of the comprehensive information and case profiles that enable research and insights regarding miscarriages of justice.

An important revelation of the National Registry’s interactive database—which includes both DNA-proven and other official exonerations—is that different types of crimes have different primary contributors. Two recently created graphs enable examination of common contributors by type of crime. The graphs dynamically update as new exonerations are added to the Registry.

Even students of wrongful conviction might be surprised to learn that the most common contributor to wrongful convictions across all crimes represented in the Registry is perjury or false accusation, present in 55 percent of the exonerations. Many have believed that eyewitness misidentification is the primary contributor to wrongful conviction. As the June report explains, the pioneering work of the Innocence Project and its database of DNA-proven exonerations identified eyewitness misidentification as present in nearly 75 percent of its cases, which are primarily sexual assault cases.

Sexual assault cases, which often rely on identification of the perpetrator by the victim, frequently in stranger-to-stranger crimes, make up just 18 percent of the cases in the National Registry, where, in contrast, exonerations for homicides account for 46 percent. The new graphing feature quickly reveals that the most common causal factor to homicide wrongful convictions is perjury or false accusations, present in 65 percent of these exonerations.

Official exonerations recorded in the National Registry—cases in which a person was wrongfully convicted of a crime and later cleared of all charges—are a proxy for the larger unknown number of wrongful convictions that have not yet been recognized. The National Registry provides detailed information on recognized miscarriages of justice to enable researchers, legislators, lawyers, public safety officials, judges, and other criminal justice professionals to identify and address the causes and contributors to wrongful conviction.

For more information on the newest findings on the causes of wrongful convictions identified in official exonerations, by crime type, read the Registry’s June 2014 update (here).

7 responses to “National Registry of Exonerations June Report: Record-Breaking Pace in 2014, Causal Insights

  1. Nancy, Outstanding article, which will be shared! This should be sent to all editorials in local papers across the nation. The public needs to know.

  2. Despite the good news that the rate of exoneration continues to grow, as tracked by the invaluable National Registry of Exonerations, the wrongful conviction problem still dwarfs the exoneration numbers.
    It’s estimated that between 1-6% of inmates were wrongly convicted. Let’s be conservative and use the 1% number, and apply that to an inmate population of 1.5 million. That works out to 15,000 INNOCENT people in prison. If we assume that the average prison sentence is 5 years, we can see that the vast majority of wrongly convicted people are never exonerated. They either serve their sentences and return to civilian life as felons paying a price for the rest of their lives, or they die in prison.
    Data is hard to gather, but let’s assume conservatively that there are 500,000 people sentenced to prison every year from the courts of the states and Federal Government. If we again assume a wrongful conviction rate of 1%, we have 5,000 innocent people being sent to prison every year. If the 2014 exoneration rate is 100 per year, that means that the ratio of innocent people being sent to prison to people being exonerated is 50:1.
    Now, reconsider the above calculations, and substitute a wrongful conviction rate of 2,3 or 5%, all of which are reasonable estimates based on careful studies.
    Another way to look at the problem is to count the number of people applying to Innocence Network organizations for help. Looking at only nine Innocence Network, or related, organizations for which information is available, I estimate there are about 6,800 applications per year for assistance, and 39,000 since 2008. Those nine organizations have achieved, admirably, approximately 89 exonerations since 2008, which is 1.3% of the applications. That’s only slightly higher than the above conservative estimate of the rate of wrongful conviction. However, according to a Rand Corporation study, only about 15% of inmates claim innocence. Thus, the rate of innocence among the applicants to Innocence Network organizations must be much higher than 1.3%. Sadly, most of the applicants lack the resources and evidence to prove their innocence.
    Much more work remains before the tide even turns in the direction of meaningfully reducing the wrongful conviction problem.

  3. It is sad to see this is happening to the people and their families. As tbese may only reflect higher profile cases, imagine the many thousands of indigent victims at the lower level.

  4. In response to Morrison’s comment, I received the following comment from a person who has been studying wrongful convictions for years. We need Phil Locke to weigh into this as well.
    “I feel that the math indicates that it is logical to assume that – at minimum – 10% of the incarcerated are innocent. The FBI mishandled the debunking of their Comparative Bullet analysis, involving @2,500 convictions, if memory serves. The FBI also mishandled the debunking of their hair and fiber analysis, which they taught to law enforcement officers nationwide, making it the forensic wild card of wrongful convictions, possibly involved tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of convictions. The FBI was involved with DNA-discredited dog handlers and is therefore using federal dollars to legitimize what remains illegitimate – unique human scent – affecting over than 3,500 criminal investigations and an unknown number of convictions, as each person framed is being to work their way free on his own. The refinement of fire accelerant science indicates that likely thousands of arson convictions are illegitimate. The DNA-discreditation of bite mark evidence likely affects hundreds of convictions. The narrowing of Shaken Baby Syndrome likely is responsible for a thousand or more wrongful convictions, and I know of one man on death row who will likely be executed despite the change in criteria that indicates his innocence. DNA remains sound, but a number of labs and technicians have been discredited, at least one lab has acted outside the law, and at least one public servant has lied about results to assign guilt to an innocent. Then, of course, you have likely a thousand or more cases like Courtney Bisbee (Maricopa County, AZ), in which there was no crime, and a thousand or more cases where the actual perpetrator has admitted guilt, only to be ignored. Then you have thousands of cases where prosecutors got away with withholding evidence, witness intimidation and other dirty tricks, which appear to be the same prosecutors that are ignoring changes in forensics and admissions of guilt by actual to keep convictions intact.

    As nearly all already-outed corrupt prosecutors and their supervisors (as well as judges) have been allowed to remain on the job, I also feel that it’s logical to assume that new false convictions are being achieved at a far faster rate than exonerations. There’s no reason to base analysis of potentially incarcerated innocents on anything other that fact, as well as the fact that no forensics analysis method survived the turn of the century without being debunked or refined except DNA, and that DNA testing has been and is being compromised in various ways.”

  5. Tragically, I think the other commenters are correct that the rate of wrongful convictions is far outstripping exonerations. I tell myself we’re at the beginning of a reformation movement that will ultimately change a system that rewards successful prosecutions rather than actual justice.

    Meanwhile, The National Registry of Exonerations is a valuable resource. I posted a blog entry last week about citing it in an academic essay:

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