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Record Exonerations in 2015 Show False Convictions 'Tragic, Widespread'

Statistics from National Registry 'scary for anyone who cares about fair and equal justice'

At least 149 defendants were cleared in 2015, 10 more than in 2014. They had, on average, spent 14 and a half years in prison, the report said. (Photo: sean hobson/flickr/cc)

Last year set a new record for exonerations in the United States, according to statistics published Wednesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School.

At least 149 defendants were cleared in 2015, 10 more than in 2014. They had, on average, spent 14 and a half years in prison, the report (pdf) said. Some served more than three decades.

A record 58 defendants were exonerated in homicide cases, and more than two-thirds of those were minorities, including half who were African American. Five had been sentenced to death, 19 to life—usually without parole—and the rest to decades in prison. Three-quarters of the homicide cases involved concealing evidence, allowing witnesses to lie, or other official misconduct, the data shows.

"Exonerations are now common," the Registry states in its write-up of the data. "Not long ago, any exoneration we heard about was major news. Now it’s a familiar story. We average nearly three exonerations a week, and most get little attention."

The statistics are "scary for anyone who cares about fair and equal justice," wrote Foon Rhee for the Sacramento Bee on Wednesday. "Just imagine if it were you or someone you love wrongly behind bars."

The report notes that with the popularity of true crime shows, such as Netflix's Making a Murderer, there is "growing awareness that false convictions are a substantial, widespread and tragic problem."

Furthermore, the Registry adds, so-called conviction integrity units "have taken dramatic steps, but only in a handful of counties and only for the most serious violent crimes and for some cases with exculpatory lab tests."

Indeed, these are merely a first steps, the authors declare.

"As with climate change, the significance of the issue of false convictions is now widely acknowledged, despite committed doubters," the report reads. "In other respects, we are far behind. We have no measure of the magnitude of the problem, no general plan for how to address it, and certainly no general commitment to do so."

It concludes: "We've made a start, but that’s all."

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