The National Registry of Exonerations Releases 2019 Annual Report with Implications Heightened by COVID-19 Concerns

The National Registry of Exonerations 2019 Annual Report, a must-read for advocates of criminal justice reform, offers important insights on wrongful conviction at a particularly distressful time for our nation and the incarcerated.

“Right now, there are likely thousands of innocent people in U.S. jails and prisons as a result of wrongful convictions. It is hard to imagine the horror of being incarcerated today – innocent or guilty – as the COVID-19 virus is spreading through these closed spaces and threatening lives,” said Barbara O’Brien, the report’s author, who is law professor at Michigan State University and editor of the National Registry.

Read the report here.

Key takeaways:

How many? The Registry recorded 143 exonerations achieved in 2019. The total of known exonerations from 1989 until year-end 2019 was 2,556.

How many years stolen? Last year set a sobering new record in the number of years wrongfully convicted persons served for crimes they did not commit before they were exonerated and released: on average 13.3 years. In total, 1,908 years were stolen from the year’s exonerees, which brought the total years lost since 1989 to more than 22,000 years. The year recorded an unusual number of cases in which innocent people served sentences of more than 30 years. Ten of the Registry’s 52 cases involving serving more than 30 years in prison were added in 2019.

What crimes were involved? Of the 143 exonerations, 117 were of violent crimes, including homicide (76 cases), child sex abuse (10), and sexual assault on adults (11). Three of those wrongfully convicted of homicide had been sentenced to death.

In 50 exonerations, no crime was actually committed.

Why were innocent people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit? The top three contributors to wrongful conviction in the 2019 exonerations were perjury or false accusation (contributed in 101 of the 143 cases); official misconduct (93); and mistaken witness identification (48). Defendants offered guilty pleas in 34 exonerations and gave false confessions in 24 cases.

Who helped achieve the year’s exonerations? Conviction Integrity Units (CIU’s) or Innocence Projects prompted exonerations in 87 of the year’s exonerations. The important trend of the increasing establishment of Conviction Integrity Units within prosecutorial offices continued in 2019. The year also witnessed a promising new development — attorneys general in Michigan and New Jersey launched statewide CIUs. (Pennsylvania’s attorney general also launched one in early 2020.)

The annual report provides more than important numbers and analysis that can inform reforms and advances. It also tells the extraordinary stories of exonerees and unthinkable injustice. These horrific cases should motivate Americans to continue all efforts that will reduce wrongful conviction and, armed with this important research, dispel the arguments of those who resist meaningful reforms. 

The National Registry of Exonerations — a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law — once again has clarified wrongful conviction with the inescapable conclusion that we can and must advance toward a more accurate and just criminal justice system. 

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