For the first time, more than 100 exonerations were recorded in the United States in one year. According to The National Registry of Exonerations Report for 2014, 125 exonerations of innocent criminal defendants mark an increase of 34 over the prior record of 91 in 2012 and 91 again in 2013. The report notes the work of Conviction Integrity Units in the increase.
“The big story for the year is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence. And many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit,” said Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and the author of the report.
Both the number of Conviction Integrity Units and the exonerations they produced increased in 2014. There were 49 CIU exonerations in 2014, including 10 murder exonerations in Brooklyn, New York. An anomaly of 33 drug-crime exonerations in Harris County, Texas — 29 of which were credited to the work of the county’s Conviction Integrity Unit — contributed to some of this year’s trends. The report noted, however, that even excluding this unusual concentration of cases, 2014 was a record year for exonerations.
The Registry is reporting 1, 536 exonerations to date since 1989.
Part I of the report discusses patterns and long-term trends in exonerations that were demonstrated again in 2014. Part II provides a comprehensive review of the nation’s Conviction Integrity Units.
Among patterns and trends confirmed again in 2014:
- Increasing support of law enforcement — Of 125 known exonerations, 67 were obtained at the initiative or with support of law enforcement, a new record percentage.
- Increasing contribution of Conviction Integrity Units — 49 exonerations, more than 39% of the year’s total, resulted from the work of Conviction Integrity Units.
- Increasing number of defendants who had pled guilty — Another record number — 47 or 38% — of the year’s exonerations were of defendants who had pled guilty to the crimes of which they were wrongfully convicted. This included nearly all of the drug-crime exonerations (36 of 39). Nevertheless, 13% (11 of 86) non-drug crime exonerations were of those who had plead guilty, an increase over the average of 9% over all such exonerations in the period of 1989 – 2013.
- Decreasing number of exonerations utilizing DNA — A record number of exonerations not relying on DNA — 103 — exceeded the total number of all exonerations in any other previous year. There were 22 DNA exonerations in the year.
- An increasing percentage of exonerations in crimes other than murder and sexual assault — In the first five-year period covered by the Registry (1989 through 1993) 25% involved non-homicidal and non-sex crime cases compared to 34% in the most recent 5-year period (2010 through 2014).
- Increasing exonerations in no-crime cases — Cases in which, for example, accidents were misinterpreted as crimes or assaults were falsely alleged — cases in which no crime actually occurred — accounted for 58 of the cases, 46% of the total of known exonerations last year. This was true of all drug exonerations and included Harris County’s drug-related exonerations. Among non-drug cases, 26% of 2014 exonerations were in no-crime cases, a slight increase over the average of 23% of such cases among all exonerations from 1989 to 2013.
Exonerations in 2014 occurred in 27 states and included federal cases in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. States with the most exonerations (not an indication of the states with most wrongful convictions) were, in order: Texas, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.
Six of those exonerated in 2014 had been sentenced to death. Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman, exonerated in Ohio, had spent more than 39 years in prison, the longest terms of incarceration after wrongful conviction known in the United States.
The comprehensive report on Conviction Integrity Units in Part II of the annual report notes the increase of post-conviction review units beginning with the first in 2002 founded in Santa Clara, California, by District Attorney George Kennedy. The longest standing Conviction Integrity Unit in the United States is the Dallas County CIU founded by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007. This Unit has generated 25 exonerations and has been widely noted as a model for subsequent post-conviction review units.
Conviction Integrity Units grew to 9 in 2013 and jumped to 15 in 2014. These units worked on 90 exonerations from 2003 through 2014, and the report also notes 3 additional cases thus far in 2015. More than half of all CIU exonerations (49 of 93) occurred in 2014.
The Harris County, Texas, Conviction Integrity Unit’s unusually high number of drug-related exonerations was the result of the focus of the unit on cases in which defendants had pled guilty to possession of illegal drugs that were seized from them but later tested negative as a controlled substance.
The Harris County Conviction Integrity Unit identified two problems relating to the crime lab testing in such cases. The lab gave low priority to drug testing in cases in which the defendant had pled guilty, which resulted in delays in testing. When exculpatory evidence was revealed, the reporting back to the DA’s office was inconsistent and not always noted.
A concentrated effort and changes in procedures by the Harris County Post Conviction Integrity Unit resulted in a clearing of a backlog of such cases. The result was 29 drug crime exonerations by the Post Conviction Review Section in 2014 and two more in 2015 plus 40 additional drug convictions that were dismissed in 2014 in cases that do not meet the Registry’s criteria for exoneration.
Overall, the 2014 National Registry report brings good news to those who present worthy claims of innocence, according to Professor Gross.
“Judging from known exonerations in 2014, the legal system is increasingly willing to act on innocence claims that have often been ignored: those without biological evidence or with no perpetrator who can be identified because in fact no crime was committed; cases with comparatively light sentences; and judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who accepted plea bargains to avoid pre-trial detention and the risk of harsher punishment after trial,” the report states.
The 24-page report, released on January 27, 2015, is available (here).
An information graphic illustrating patterns and trends can be viewed (here).