National Registry of Exonerations: 2014 was Record-breaking with 125 Exonerations in U.S.

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).

14 responses to “National Registry of Exonerations: 2014 was Record-breaking with 125 Exonerations in U.S.

  1. Nancy, Great article and information. Congratulations, to all who participated in breaking the Exoneration Registry record! This is outstanding news, but sadly, it is the tip of the iceberg, of the hundreds of thousands of wrongfully convicted men and women across America, “land of the free”, #1 jailer in the world.

    These exonerations on the Exoneration Registry, also, cast doubt on the integrity of the justice system, who sent innocent people to prison for decades (defacto life sentences) and those who drive wrongful convictions – most particularly those who choose to ignore wrongful convictions and the growing innocence movement.

    We commend the DA’s taking the lead, like Dallas, TX, Craig Watkins and Brooklyn, NY DA Ken Thompson – overturning wrongful convictions, getting the innocent out of prison and exonerating them.

    We, also, commend Santa Clara Law Professor, Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi and Maurice Possley, Northern California Innocence Project, who created the Veritas Prosecutorial Misconduct Report, 2010, which highlighted the misconduct in California. http://veritasinitiative.scu.edu

    Kathleen Ridolfi, NCIP, also, initiated a nationwide “Prosecutorial Misconduct Tour, where I attended the Phoenix two-day CLE. The Arizona Ray Krone, wrongful conviction case was dissected and studied. In 2006, the Arizona state legislature apologized to him and stated “we have to do better next time”. Really? Better at keeping these travesties of justice hidden? Or better at “righting the wrongs”? Years later, disbarred county attorneys/top prosecutors later — we’re still waiting for the many innocent to be released and freed, and their exonerations. i.e. Debra Milke, Courtney Bisbee, Stephen May, among others, while their cases languish in the courts.

    What stands out from the list of states/prosecutors, exonerating the innocent, are those states/prosecutors MISSING from the list. Those, like Arizona, who have chosen to ignore wrongful convictions, who fail to do their jobs as ministers of justice, and have politicized the justice system – favoring incarceration (private prisons and Super Max prison growth), over education. Many have failed their ethical responsibility, as ministers of justice, to “right the wrongs” in prosecutors’ offices with entrenched systemic abuse of power. Instead, we have prosecutors (politicians) whipping up the latest moral panics for the media and legislators, while fighting against the taxpayers for meaningful sentencing reform that would save hundreds of millions of scarce taxpayers’ dollars like other conservative states have been doing. Unsustainable.

    In 2007, the ABA created the model rule to amend ER 3.8 – Ethics responsibility of a prosecutor, after the egregious Duke/Nifong prosecutorial misconduct / false allegation case.

    Following the ABA, a Petition to Amend ER 3.8 – Ethics responsibility of a prosecutor, was submitted to the Arizona Supreme Court Rules Forum No. R-11-0033. Arizona’s top prosecutors wrote their replies (either misleading, lying or ignorant?) to the judges, stating there were NO wrongful convictions or Brady violations in Arizona. You be the judge. Read the prosecutors letters:

    R-11-0033 Petition to Amend ER 3.8, Rule 42, Arizona Rules of the Supreme Court > Court Rules Forum > Arizona Judicial Branch
    http://azdnn.dnnmax.com/tabid/91/forumid/7/view/topic/postid/1530/afsort/DESC/Default.aspx

    In late 2013, against the protesting state prosecutors, the Arizona Supreme Court judges passed Rule No. R-11-0033 ER 3.8 Ethics responsibility of a prosecutor; effective January 2014.

    • Camille, thank you for your comprehensive and informative response. While we celebrate a record number of exonerations in 2014, the detail of the research compiled on exoneration cases by The National Registry strongly suggests, unfortunately, that these hard-won corrections are representative of countless other wrongful convictions not yet identified and proven. Progress is too slow for those wrongfully incarcerated. For today, I am grateful for the fact that we’ve seen at least expanding awareness of miscarriages of justice and increasing cooperation from law enforcement in making corrections. But we have much work to do to ensure justice for all.

      • The longer these innocent people languish in America’s hell-hole prisons (see “Torture Memos” and Senator Feinstein’s CIA Report), the more shame will be cast upon America’s justice system and making a mockery of fair and equal justice for all.

        Those families, who are victims of the broken criminal justice system are growing and the taxpayers’ cannot sustain the damages. The truth is like a “brilliant ray of sunshine, that will not go away”. The longer it takes, to identify and free the innocent sitting prison across America, the greater the damages will be for ALL, our legacy and most importantly our children and grandchildren, who few seem to care about.

      • Nancy, The longer these innocent people languish in America’s hell-hole prisons (see “Torture Memos” and Senator Feinstein’s CIA Report), the more shame that will be cast upon America’s justice system – making a mockery of fair and equal justice for all.

        The families, who are the innocent victims of the broken criminal justice system, are growing daily in the “plea-bargain assembly lines” across America, and “faux” trials (dare-to-go-to-tria,l and you will be given a defacto life sentence) that has created a crisis, few politicians and media will address. The taxpayers’ cannot sustain the damages.

        The truth shines out brightly, like a “brilliant ray of sunshine, that will not go away”. We don’t need another report, another non-profit, another legal filing to “right these wrongs”.

        The longer it takes, to identify and free the innocent sitting in prisons across America, the greater the damages will be for ALL, our legacy and most importantly our children and grandchildren, who few seem to care about, except to use them for political and financial gain.

        We celebrate our 53rd wedding anniversary to today, so I reflect upon how our once wonderful life and loving family was shredded with a false allegation, while living in conservative, upscale family neighborhood, where one would expect our successful divorce daughter raising a young child, to be “safe”. I mention this, since the long arm of the law reaches everywhere, not just the “red-lined” communities across America.

  2. Well said, Camille. You are a tireless advocate. Thank you.

  3. correction(need edit button): As we celebrate our 53rd wedding anniversary today, I reflect upon how our once wonderful lives, was shredded with a false allegation by one teenager against our daughter, Courtney Bisbee, for an alleged incident/crime that never happened.

    She was living in Scottsdale, AZ, in a conservative, upscale family neighborhood, where one would expect our successful divorced daughter, raising her 4 1/2 year old daughter, to be “safe”. I mention this, since the “long arm of the law” and SWAT team now reach everywhere, not just the “red-lined” communities across America.

  4. Thank you Nancy. As I study wrongful convictions in the USA, different States have a different character. I would pick out Florida, Missouri and Texas as being particularly corrupt, but corruption and Brady violations are endemic.

  5. George – I think you are not wrong. I’d recommend you also take a hard look Arizona.

  6. Please help me, my Husband was given a Life Sentence for a store robbery he didn’t commit. He never Killed or hurt anyone to get a life sentence. The Florida State Prosecutor withheld Brady evidence that proofs his innocents. My husband has always kept his innocents and said his just simply not Guilty of the crime. The Co-defendant that took a plea to say my Husband was there during the Crime has wrote a letter to the Family apologizing for lying and would like to tell the truth. The Co- defendant said his Brother was the one who committed the Crime with him, so he didn’t want to turn his own brother in so he put the blame on my Husband. I currently tracked the Brother and was able to connect my husband to talk to him, he told my husband that his sorry for what his family has done and that his willing to help. He said I’m sorry you have a life Sentence for a Crime I and my brother commited. Please I need help My husband is innocent, the whole case is corrupted.

  7. Jeannette,

    If you can send me your e’mail address, I can send you a little more information. Mine is pfl9@cornell.edu.

    Phil Locke

  8. Pingback: Americans And Mass Wrongful Convictions – Prosecutors Addicted To Prosecutorial Misconduct | Montana Corruption

  9. Can someone please help me to exonerate a wrongfully convicted INNOCENT man by the name of Kenneth Deangelo Thomas in Tennessee? He has recently been in the news in Summer/Fall of this year due to his request to be euthanized instead of continuing to be imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. (Please Google “Kenneth Thomas prisoner euthanasia.”) Now, on Jan 4, he’s going to federal court pro se.

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