February 3, 2016
Netflix’s Making a Murderer has Americans wondering: how common are false confessions? How common is official misconduct or “framing” a defendant? How frequently are people wrongfully convicted of murder, the most serious of crimes?
Far too often, according to the annual report from the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations, Exonerations in 2015.
In fact, more wrongfully convicted defendants were exonerated in 2015 than any year in history. Four out of every 10 were exonerated of murder.
A record-high 149 exonerations occurred in the United States in 2015, averaging three per week. A record 58 defendants were exonerated in homicide cases in 2015, averaging more than one a week.
More defendants than ever before were exonerated even though they had confessed, and 2015 saw a record number of exonerated defendants who had pled guilty.
“We’re entranced with a documentary about one possible innocence case in Wisconsin, but 58 men and women have actually been exonerated of homicide charges in 2015. Five of them had been sentenced to death. Instead of being executed, they are now free,” said Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and the author of the report.
“Increasingly, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys are acknowledging the systemic problem of wrongful convictions. That’s a welcome change,” Gross said, “but it’s just a start. We’ve only begun to address this problem systematically.”
Twenty-seven exonerations in 2015 were for convictions based on false confessions. More than 80 percent of these false confessions were in homicide cases, mostly by defendants who were under 18 or had intellectual disabilities or both. Three-quarters of the homicide exonerations included known official misconduct, such as concealing evidence of the real criminals or allowing witnesses to testify falsely.
The states with the most exonerations are: Texas (54); New York (17); Illinois (13); Alaska (6); California (5); North Carolina (5); Alabama (4); Connecticut (4); Wisconsin (4); Florida (3); Pennsylvania (3); and Virginia (3).
More than two-thirds of the defendants exonerated in homicide cases were people of color, including half who were African American.
Forty-seven defendants were exonerated of drug possession, also a record, 42 of them after pleading guilty in Harris County, Texas.
The report states that the performance of the nation’s 24 Conviction Integrity Units (a division in a prosecutor’s office dedicated to correcting false convictions) “has been highly variable and some [units] have been criticized as mere window dressing.” Ninety percent of CIU-exonerations in the past 12 years have occurred in just four counties: Harris (76); Dallas (25); Brooklyn (20); and Cook (13). Half of all CIUs have not been involved in any exonerations and four others have worked on only one.
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