Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States
The National Registry of Exonerations has provided data-supported evidence of significant racial disparity in criminal justice in its report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, released today. Known murder exonerations in the United States since 1989 — cases in which a person convicted of murder was officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence — indicate that innocent African-Americans are about seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than innocent whites.
In the Registry’s analysis of known exonerations, racial disparities were apparent at many points along the criminal justice process. As examples, blacks convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than others convicted of murder. Murder convictions resulting in exonerations for blacks were 22 percent more likely to have involved police misconduct than exoneration cases of white murder defendants. Black murder exonerees waited three years longer than white murder exonerees to be released from prison (among those sentenced to death, blacks spent four years longer in prison than white murder exonerees).
The 32-page report focuses on the impact of race as revealed in exonerations for murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes. In all three categories, blacks fared worse than whites in many comparisons.
For example, while assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the U.S., they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that eventually resulted in exonerations, an indicator of the fallibility of cross-racial eyewitness exoneration. But the report also concludes that eyewitness misidentifications do not fully explain the racial disparity in assault exonerations. Racial bias is a factor in some misidentifications, and “other convictions that led to sexual assault exonerations were marred by implicit biases, racially tainted official misconduct and, in some cases, explicit racism.”
Among the startling indicators of unequal criminal justice:
- A black sexual assault convict is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict.
- African American sexual assault exonerees received harsher sentences. Twenty-eight percent were sentenced to life imprisonment compared to 17 percent of white sexual assault exonerees. The average minimum term for those not sentenced to life was 29 years for blacks and 19 years for whites. Criminal history does not explain the gaps in sentencing. For example, among sexual assault exonerees who had no prior criminal convictions, the only two sentenced to life were blacks.
In drug crimes, again based on exonerations, African Americans are about five times as likely to be imprisoned for drug possession as whites, even though national evidence indicates African Americans and whites use illegal drugs at similar rates. Exonerations reveal that innocent blacks are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent whites.
The report indicates that African Americans are more likely to have drug-crime records because police are more likely to stop, search, and arrest them.
The report offers many insights on issues relating to uneven justice including the impact of racial profiling, deliberate charging of innocent defendants for non-existent crimes, the high penalty for choosing a jury trial over a plea deal, and pressures that prompt false guilty pleas.
Read the complete report here.
Exonerations in 2016, Another Record Year
Also released today was the Registry’s annual report of 2016. The 27-page report detailed a record 166 exonerations in 2016 in 25 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts, and Puerto Rico as compared to 160 exonerations in 2015, the second largest year for exonerations since 1989.
Fifty-four defendants were exonerated of homicide; twenty-four of sexual assault; fifteen of other violent crimes, and seventy-three of non-violent crimes, primarily drug offences. Most of the drug-related exonerations came from Harris County, Texas, through the efforts of a Conviction Integrity Unit that identified flaws leading to wrongful drug convictions and false guilty pleas.
Just 17 exonerations in 2016, or 10 percent, were based in whole or part by DNA identification evidence.
Among noteworthy new records for exonerations in 2016:
- Official misconduct was revealed in 70 exonerations or 42% of all cases.
- Seventy-four exonerations, 45%, were guilty plea cases.
- Ninety-four exonerations were cases in which no crime actually occurred.
- Seventy exonerations were prompted by Conviction Integrity Units.
The annual report includes discussion of false guilty pleas revealed in all cases and particularly in drug-related cases, analysis of the diverse outcomes from the growing number of Conviction Integrity Units (now 29 in the U.S.), and commentary on progress made and work to be done.
The Registry recently reported its two-thousandth exoneration since 1989. This does not include 1,800 defendants cleared in “group exonerations” as a result of 15 police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants.
The report concludes:
“ the record number of exonerations that we have seen in recent years have not made a dent in the number of innocent defendants who have been convicted and punished.
…We may continue to see record numbers of exonerations in years to come. The room for growth is essentially unlimited. The mass of innocent defendants who could be helped dwarfs the help that is available. The number of those cleared and released is simply a function of the resources that are available to investigate and reconsider cases on the one hand, and the level of resistance to doing so on the other.”
Read the complete report here.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law. It provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.