The National Registry of Exonerations has just released data on the 139 people known to have been exonerated in 2017, along with historical data. This information gives us some insight into why 139 innocent people ended up behind bars, and how they ended up getting freed.
Exonerations are rising due to prosecutors and professional advocates
According to information from the Registry, at least 33 prosecutors’ offices around the country have set up conviction integrity units. Lawyers from these units scrutinize past convictions for evidence of innocence. These units, along with some 52 organizations like the Innocence Project, were responsible for exonerating 80 of the 139 exonerees last year.
The Registry calls particular attention to Harris County, Texas, where a conviction integrity unit has been working to clear a backlog of questionable drug possession cases. The unit exonerated over 40 defendants in 2015 and nearly 50 more in 2016. It exonerated 10 people last year.
“It makes you really wonder what would the feelings on exoneration be, and how many would we see, if there were more of these organizations,” noted the Registry’s editor.
In 84 of 139 exonerations, official misconduct was involved in the wrongful conviction
In over 60 percent of the cases, some form of official misconduct contributed to the original conviction. Examples included police officers threatening witnesses, falsified tests by analysts, or officials failing to turn over evidence to the defense, as constitutionally required. Prosecutors are legally and ethically bound to tell the defense of any evidence they discover which could serve to show the defendant is not guilty, but far too often, they fail or refuse to do so.
66 of the exonerations involved crimes that didn’t happen
In nearly half of the exonerations, the underlying crime didn’t even occur. For example, one man was convicted of murdering his own infant son. Evidence now shows it was more likely the child died of a serious medical condition called sepsis. The exonerated man had been on death row.
According to the Registry, exonerations featuring no underlying crime included over a dozen cases of alleged drug possession, 11 false allegations of child abuse, and a total of 9 murder cases.
Overall, these innocent people spent an average of 10.6 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. The time they lost adds up to 1,478 years.
Whenever we hear about a criminal case, it’s crucial to remember that the criminal justice system is far from perfect. Each of us has a responsibility to take “innocent until proven guilty” seriously.
If you or a loved one has been wrongfully convicted, your first step should be to talk to a lawyer with experience in appeals and post-conviction relief.