Study Finds Black Defendants More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted than White Defendants

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A study released Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations found that black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be wrongfully convicted of murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.

The study  broke down the exonerations that are listed in the National Registry of Exonerations’ records by demographic. The results were striking: despite the fact that black people make up 13 percent of the population in the U.S., they make up 47 percent of innocent defendants convicted and then exonerated. You can read the full study here, but here are some of the other illuminating findings:

  • Innocent black defendants are roughly seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white defendants. Black defendants are most likely to be wrongfully convicted if they are accused of killing white victims.
  • Black prisoners are 3.5 times more likely to have been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault than white prisoners. The study attributes this disparity to issues with witness identification. According to the study: “Assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, but they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration.”
  • In regards to convictions of drug crimes, the study determined that black people were 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people. The study notes that this disparity likely comes from the fact that “police enforce drug laws more vigorously against African Americans than against members of the white majority, despite strong evidence that both groups use drugs at equivalent rates.”

The study also concluded that innocent black people usually spend a longer period of time incarcerated than innocent white people before being exonerated.

This study obviously cannot account for innocent people who have not been exonerated, which is likely a fairly large population. We don’t know definitively what that population looks like. But this study does point to a troubling picture: almost across the board, it’s more likely that black Americans are wrongfully convicted of crimes than White Americans.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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