The National Registry of Exoneration has reported 139 exonerations — cases in which convictions were officially vacated as a result of new evidence of innocence — in 2017. A significant finding in the Annual Report (here) is that in 84 of these cases, misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials factored in the wrongful conviction, an all-time record for official misconduct as a contributor to wrongful convictions later vacated through exoneration. But there was also encouraging evidence of increasing activism in achieving exonerations by prosecutorial offices through the work of Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs).
The annual report provides a detailed analysis of exonerations in 2017. Perjury or false accusation factored in a record 87 cases, 62 percent. Another record 29 or 20 percent of exonerations involved a false confession. And mistaken eyewitness identification impacted a record 37 cases, 26 percent.
Fifty-one defendants were exonerated of homicide, twenty-nine of sex crimes, eighteen of other violent crimes, forty-one of non-violent crimes such as fraud, theft, and traffic offenses, and sixteen of drug offenses.
Seventeen cases were based in part on DNA evidence. Sixty-six exonerations were in cases in which no crime was actually committed. In thirty-six cases the defendant had pled guilty.
The report noted that in 2017 most exonerations — 80, more than half — were achieved by “professional exonerators,” CIUs in prosecutorial offices and Innocence Organizations (IOs), non-governmental organizations dedicated to identifying and remedying wrongful convictions. The most recent trend in the work of professional exonerators is an increase in cooperation between these two very different types of organizations.
But the report also noted that not all Conviction Integrity Units have achieved exonerations. Of 33 Conviction Integrity Units in the United States, most concentrated in large-population counties, just fourteen counties were involved in 42 exonerations last year. While the success of these fourteen CIU’s is encouraging, the report notes that with over 2,300 local prosecutorial offices in the United States, CIUs must expand significantly to provide access to inmates who are claiming innocence and seeking assistance.
There were fewer exonerations in 2017 than in 2016, 139 compared to 171, due to a steep decline in the number of drug crime exonerations. In 2017, there were 16 such cases compared to the record number of 61 drug exonerations in 2016. Most of this decrease came from Harris County, Texas, which has largely cleared a backlog of drug possession cases in which defendants had pled guilty to drug possession, and crime lab tests later indicated the supposed drugs confiscated were not controlled substances.
The report includes a narrative on seven illustrative exonerations from the year, including the horrific injustice of Ledura Watkins, 61, who was released from prison in June 2017 after serving 41 years and three months for a murder he did not commit. This was the longest incarceration before exoneration in United States history.
The NRE annual report is always an instructive record of failed justice and the difficult work of those unwilling to let injustice stand. It humanizes, quantifies and sheds light on wrongful convictions and how they can be prevented. In spite of the long odds and costly investigative and legal resources required to prove innocence after conviction, the Registry today is reporting 2,182 exonerations since 1989. The Registry also released today a new report on exonerations occurring before 1989.
The NRE’s 2017 annual report is another wake-up call for all Americans to make the changes necessary — criminal justice reforms and best practice implementation — to prevent wrongful convictions and deliver on our nation’s noble promise of justice for all.