Researchers for the National Registry of Exonerations issued a report Monday revealing over 2,000 people in the US that have been tried and convicted of crimes they did not commit and later were relieved of their charges, or exonerated. More than 100 had been sentenced to death.
The Registry measures cases from 1989, and most likely uncovers only a small fraction of wrongfully accused cases in the US, according to Samuel Gross, one of the database's creators and author of the report.
Most of the cases in the report involved the planting of drugs or guns on innocent defendants.
Among other findings, the report shows that perjury and false accusations account for 51 percent of the cases, and that African Americans represent 50 percent of the names on the database.
"For those who have placed unequivocal faith in the US criminal justice system and believe that all condemned prisoners are guilty of the crime of which they were convicted, the data must make for a rude awakening," writes David A. Love for the Guardian/UK today.
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The Guardian/UK: How America's Death Penalty Murders Innocents
The US criminal justice system is a broken machine that wrongfully convicts innocent people, sentencing thousands of people to prison or to death for the crimes of others, as a new study reveals. The University of Michigan law school and Northwestern University have compiled a new National Registry of Exonerations – a database of over 2,000 prisoners exonerated between 1989 and the present day, when DNA evidence has been widely used to clear the names of innocent people convicted of rape and murder. Of these, 885 have profiles developed for the registry's website, exonerationregistry.org.
The details are shocking. Death row inmates were exonerated nine times more frequently than others convicted of murder. One-fourth of those exonerated of murder had received a death sentence, while half of those who had been wrongfully convicted of rape or murder faced death or a life behind bars. Ten of the inmates went to their grave before their names were cleared.
The leading causes of wrongful convictions include perjury, flawed eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct. For those who have placed unequivocal faith in the US criminal justice system and believe that all condemned prisoners are guilty of the crime of which they were convicted, the data must make for a rude awakening.
"The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis … Most false convictions never see the light of the day," said University of Michigan law professors Samuel Gross and Michael Shaffer, who wrote the study.
"Nobody had an inkling of the serious problem of false confessions until we had this data," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.
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ExonerationRegistry.org is the largest database of its kind ever assembled, according to its creators from the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. Nonetheless, researchers are not able to say what percentage of convictions in the U.S. are false, in part because it can take so long for new evidence to come to light. There are currently about 2.5 million people in prison in the United States.
The earliest cases in the database date back to 1989, when DNA evidence freed its first two prisoners.
"We can figure that as sort of the modern period in exonerations because DNA was a big game-changer," said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, one of the registry's creators. "It provided a scientific instrument for reviewing cases and providing a different type of evidence about those cases because the technology didn't exist."
But DNA doesn't actually account for the majority of the exonerations in the database, after an initial wave in the early 1990s, he said. [...]
Gross co-authored a report on the database that pulls together statistics on exonerations from January 1989 through February 2012. While the database is constantly updated and new exonerations are being added all the time, the report focuses on the 873 individuals whose cases had been filed before March.
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"This is a beginning," said University of Michigan Law School professor Samuel Gross, one of the database's creators. "One of my great hopes is that this will lead us to learn more about exonerations."
The database, which was developed with members of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Conviction, focused on 873 individual cases. The researchers also identified 13 major police scandals that falsely netted 1,170 other people, although these are not included in the database because they are the results of a collective exoneration based on problems in individual agencies.
Among the findings by the database researchers:
- Perjury and false accusations are the most common causes of a bogus conviction, accounting for 51 percent of the cases included in the database;
- Men make up 93 percent of the exonerated defendants;
- African Americans represent 50 percent of the names on the database; whites make up 38 percent. Latinos account for 11 percent, and Native Americans and Asians make up 2 percent;
- The most common crime on the list is murder, representing 48 percent of the exonerations. Sexual assaults are the second most common at 35 percent. There's a steep drop-off to other crimes, with robberies equaling 5 percent, while drug, white collar and non-violent crimes amount to 7 percent;
- There have been 101 death-row inmates freed.
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