American Justice: Study finds 2,000 exonerated defendants in last 23 years

Last week, the Associated Press reported on a new study that claimed that more than 2,000 convicted criminal defendants in the past 23 years have been later exonerated.

WASHINGTON — More than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in the United States in the past 23 years, according to a new archive compiled at two universities.

There is no official record-keeping system for exonerations of convicted criminals in the country, so academics set one up. The new national registry, or database, painstakingly assembled by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, is the most complete list of exonerations ever compiled.

The database compiled and analyzed by the researchers contains information on 873 exonerations for which they have the most detailed evidence. The researchers are aware of nearly 1,200 other exonerations, for which they have less data.

They found that those 873 exonerated defendants spent a combined total of more than 10,000 years in prison, an average of more than 11 years each. Nine out of 10 of them are men and half are African-American.

Nearly half of the 873 exonerations were homicide cases, including 101 death sentences. Over one-third of the cases were sexual assaults.

DNA evidence led to exoneration in nearly one-third of the 416 homicides and in nearly two-thirds of the 305 sexual assaults.

Researchers estimate the total number of felony convictions in the United States is nearly a million a year.

Before anyone tells me that “overall, this is a pretty good percentage of correct convictions” keep in mind the following:

1.  These 2,000 exonerations don’t include people who were wrongly convicted but haven’t been able to prove it (yet);

2.  There are likely many more wrongful convictions in lesser felony and misdemeanor cases, but those cases don’t get the same level of scrutiny, especially post-conviction.

3.  While homicide and rape often have DNA evidence which has been used to prove many wrongful convictions; DNA is not (typically) an issue in a wrongful conviction for drugs, DUI, retail theft or battery.

I am reminded of a certain Chicago DUI officer, who used to make over 200 DUI arrests per year, year after year, until it was publicized that he was caught red-handed making up facts to support his arrests, such as imaginary field sobriety tests which hadn’t occurred.  (In the year and a half interim between his being caught by a pair of State’s Attorneys and it being publicized, he continued to make arrests and testify in court.  In one case which I defended during this time period, a State’s Attorney asked the jury “Why would this officer make up evidence?”  I, of course, had not been informed that an investigation was pending).  Not only had hundreds, maybe over a thousand people been found guilty based on his false evidence, but the Cook County State’s Attorney fought to keep those convictions intact.

Based on what I have scene, 2,000 wrongful convictions is just the tip of the iceberg.

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