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Exoneration Registry Shows Incidents of Wrongful Convictions

A remarkable new registry of exonerations of convicted criminals shows that since 1989, over 2,000 Americans were convicted of crimes they did not commit, and were eventually set free. The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, tracks these incidents and uses the data to study how people get falsely convicted and why.

The number of exonerations – over 2,000 – was much higher than expected, but still only represents the crimes we know about. Many more innocents could be locked up in state and federal prisons across the country, waiting for their exoneration.

Of the over 2,000 cases, more than 1,000 are derived from 13 police corruption scandals across the country, which mostly involve falsely planting drugs and weapons on innocent defendants. But even the 900 individual cases studied in the registry show a disturbingly high degree of both misconduct and misidentifications which lead to the false imprisonment of innocent suspects. This is from the registry documents:

· For murder, the biggest problem is perjury, usually by a witness who claims to have witnessed the crime or participated in it. Murder exoneration also include many false confessions.
· In rape cases, false convictions are almost always based on eyewitness mistakes – more often than not, mistakes by white victims who misidentify black defendants.
· False convictions for robbery are also almost always caused by eyewitness misidentifications, but there are few exonerations because DNA evidence is hardly ever useful in robbery cases.
· Child sex abuse exonerations are almost all about fabricated crimes that never occurred.

Michigan Law professor Samuel Gross believes that the exonerations on display here represent “the tip of an iceberg.” He said that most falsely convicted suspects simply die in prison, with the truth about their sentences either coming out many years later or never at all.

The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, with an incarceration rate of 743 per 100000, as of 2009. Incarceration rates soared following the introduction of the war on drugs in the Reagan Administration. Just this week, a grandmother named Elisa Castillo was sentenced to life in prison on a first-time drug offense, for her role in purchasing tour buses to Mexico that were used, according to her without her knowledge, to ship drugs into the US.

The counties with the highest rate of exonerations, based on current data, include New Orleans (LA), Suffolk (MA), Kern (CA), Jefferson (LA) and Dallas (TX). The states with the highest rates include Illinois, Louisiana and New York. The registry covers the time when DNA testing has come into the vanguard, and more knowledge about wrongful convictions has become known. 50% of those listed as exonerated in the registry are African-American.

The situation of wrongful convictions has been recently reignited by a study of the false execution of Carlos DeLuna in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. The study looks at another misidentification between DeLuna, a native of Texas, and another man named Carlos who was the likely perpetrator.

Even this incomplete study shows that there are way too many exonerations based on false accusations and official misconduct, including mishandling of evidence and false confessions. The study’s authors hope that the registry, which will be continually updated, will help provide even more information about the causes of wrongful convictions, leading to identifying problems before they lead to an innocent man going to jail. “The more we learn about false convictions, the better we’ll be at preventing them – or if that fails, at finding and correcting them as best we can after the fact,” said Gross, the Michigan Law professor.

More from the LA Times.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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