Exonerations of Wrongly Accused Hit Record High in 2014
A record number of inmates imprisoned for crimes they did not commit were exonerated in 2014, according to a newly released report. The National Registry of Exonerations–a project by the University of Michigan Law School–released the report Tuesday boasting a total of 125 exonerations in the United States.
This was a significant increase compared to the previous highest total of 91 in both 2013 and 2012. In 2014, Texas led the list of number of exonerations with 39, followed by New York with 17, and Illinois with seven. The 37 percent increase is largely driven by an increase in drug related exonerations, most notably 33 separate exonerations in Harris County (Houston), Texas, due to an upped focus on reviewing arrests there.
— Tierney Sneed (@Tierney_Megan) January 27, 2015
Many of these exonerations involved inmates pleading guilty to drug possession when they had no such drugs. Inger Chandler, head of the Conviction Review Section in the Harris County District Attorney’s office, hypothesized the reasons behind this, saying:
Some probably thought the pills or powders they were carrying contained illegal drugs when in fact they didn’t; others – especially defendants with criminal records, who generally cannot post the comparatively high bails that are set for them and who risk substantial terms in prison if convicted – agreed to attractive plea bargains at their initial court appearances, despite their innocence, rather than remain in pretrial custody and risk years in prison.
Pleading guilty to something you didn’t do apparently isn’t that uncommon. According to the report, a record breaking 47 of the 125 defendants were exonerated of crimes that they actually pled guilty to, continuing a growing trend that was evident last year as well.
While groups like the Innocence Project have devoted themselves for years to helping the “not guilty” behind bars, this report attributes the spike in exonerations to growing law enforcement cooperation and newly formed prosecutorial “Conviction Integrity Units” (CIU). This shows that the legal system is beginning to take more action to address innocence claims that were traditionally ignored. Prosecutors among these 15 CIUs have begun to tackle what they call a serious problem of “erroneous convictions” by reexamining cases with claims of innocence, accounting for 49 of the 2014 exonerations. University of Michigan law professor and co-founder of the registry told USA Today:
I think there is a seachange in the thinking related to the fallibility of the criminal justice system. It turns out that (wrongful conviction) is a much more common problem than everybody realizes.
DNA testing wasn’t the magical cure-all for freeing these prisoners that shows like “CSI” would have you believe. Only 22 cases involved DNA evidence, accounting for 18% of the exonerations.
The crimes most commonly exonerated since 1989 have been either homicides or sex-related. Some of these prisoners (mostly male) have been behind bars for decades awaiting their freedom. Take Ricky Jackson for example, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, attempted murder and robbery in 1975. Jackson spent 39 years, the longest time ever served by an exoneree, in an Ohio prison until he was acquitted after a witness recanted the false testimony that put him behind bars.
According to the New York Times, the felony convictions system has a success rate of 99.973 percent, making the error rate .027 percent. As impressive as that may seem, given the high levels of incarceration in the United States, that means that there are still undoubtedly more inmates still incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. This report’s startling numbers may provide some of these prisoners hope in their own legal battles.