The National Registry of Exonerations has reported a record 149 known exonerations in 2015 in 29 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts, and Guam. The exonerated had served an average of 14-and-a-half years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Increasing known exonerations has been a trend over recent years, and the National Registry of Exoneration’s annual report, Exonerations in 2015, includes several new records for 2015:
- Homicide Exonerations: A record 58 defendants were exonerated in homicide cases, including 54 for murder and 4 for manslaughter. More than two-thirds were minorities, half African American. Of those wrongfully convicted of homicide, five had been sentenced to death, 19 to life without parole, and the rest to long prison terms.
- False Confession Cases: In a record 27 exoneration cases in 2015 the defendant gave a false confession. Of these, 80% were in homicide cases. Most who falsely confessed were under 18 years of age or mentally handicapped or both.
- Official Misconduct: A record 65 exonerations revealed known official misconduct. Misconduct was identified in three-quarters of homicide exonerations.
- Guilty Plea Cases: In a record 65 exonerations, the defendant pleaded guilty. Most of these were drug cases, but 8 were homicide cases in which the defendant also falsely confessed.
- No-Crime Cases: No crime actually occurred in a record 75 exonerations in 2015. Drug cases accounted for 48 of these, but 6 murder convictions and 14 other violent felony convictions were among those in which no crime in fact occurred.
- Conviction Integrity Units: A record 58 exonerations were accomplished in 2015 through the work of or with the assistance of Conviction Integrity Units. These divisions of prosecutorial offices charged with preventing, identifying, and remedying wrongful convictions have been involved in 152 exonerations over the last several years, but primarily in 2014 and 2015.
The report addresses the record number of drug case exonerations in 2014 and 2015. The great majority of these cases were from Harris County (Houston), Texas. The Conviction Integrity Unit of the county noticed many cases in which defendants pled guilty to illegal drug possession but the evidence later tested negative as a controlled substance. Harris County has established new protocols in drug cases to reduce this type of conviction error.
These cases raise the question of how many defendants plead guilty in misdemeanor and low level felony cases to avoid pretrial detention and the risk of long sentences after trial. The report suggests that the number of false convictions in such cases “probably dwarfs the number for serous felonies that make up the Registry.”
The report provides an assessment of Conviction Integrity Units, which have expanded to two dozen units in the nation. Performance and outcomes vary widely among them. While half of the CIUs have not been involved in any exoneration, Dallas County has had 25 exonerations in violent felony cases over eight years; Brooklyn’s CIU has had 18 exonerations (16 were murder cases) in the past two years, and Harris County has had 73 drug case exonerations within the past two years.
Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and author of the report provides sobering concluding comments:
“There is a growing awareness that false convictions are a substantial, widespread and tragic problem. The popularity of the recent Netflix documentary Making a Murderer reflects and contributes to that process. Increasingly, Americans realize that we convict innocent people of crimes on a regular basis.
How many? We don’t know. We have reliable statistical evidence that the rate of false convictions among death sentences in the United States is about 4%, but we don’t have comparable information about non-capital convictions. The rates for other types of criminal cases could be lower or higher. But even a false conviction rate of 1% translates into tens of thousands of miscarriages of justice a year, and thousands more who were convicted in past years but remain in prison.”
Comparing awareness of wrongful conviction with awareness of an issue such as climate change, Gross concludes, “…the significance of the issue of false convictions is now widely acknowledged, despite committed doubters. In other respects, we are far behind. We have no measure of the magnitude of the problem, no general plan for how to address it, and certainly no general commitment to do so.
We’ve made a start, but that’s all.”
Read the entire report, which includes illustrative exonerations from 2015 (here).