The Registry, Exonerations and False Convictions

The National Registry of Exonerations is the most comprehensive collection of exonerations in the United States ever assembled.

The great majority of false convictions never result in exoneration. Exonerations are most common among defendants wrongly convicted of the most severe violent crimes – especially murder and rape – and for those sentenced to death, life in prison, or many years in custody. Even then, whether or not a falsely convicted defendant is exonerated often depends on sheer luck.

The Registry was launched in May 2012 with a Report covering 873 exonerations from 1989 through February 2012. Since then, the Registry has added exonerations at a rate exceeding 200 a year.

About a third of the newly added exonerations are current cases which are posted within days or weeks of their occurrence. About two thirds are previously unknown exonerations that occurred months, years or decades before.

The previously unknown cases illustrate a central conclusion of our research: The exonerations we know about are just a fraction of those that have taken place.

As we continue to identify old exonerations that have remained unknown to us, we expect the range and diversity of the exonerations we list to continue to grow. For example, 83% of exonerations in our initial Report involved a rape or a murder, compared to only 62% of exonerations in the same period that were identified later by more painstaking research.

Basic Patterns

As of October 2014, the Registry included 1,465 exonerees:

  • Sex: 92% men; 8% women.
  • Race: 47% black; 40% white; 11% Hispanic; 2% Native American or Asian.
  • Trials and Guilty Pleas: 82% convicted by juries; 7% convicted by judges; 11% pled guilty.
  • Crimes: 46% falsely convicted of homicide; 29% of sexual assault (includes 12% convicted of child sex abuse); 14% of other violent crimes; 11% of non-violent crimes.
  • DNA: 26% were exonerated at least in part by DNA evidence; 74% without DNA evidence.
  • Time served: All told, these exonerees spent nearly 13,873 years in prison–on average 9 years each. Almost all were imprisoned for years; 41% for 10 years or more; 62% for at least 5 years.
  • Contributing factors that led to their wrongful convictions (many cases have multiple factors):
    • Perjury or False Accusation: 56%
    • Official Misconduct: 47%
    • Mistaken Witness Identification: 35%
    • False or Misleading Forensic Evidence: 22%
    • False Confessions: 13%

Among exonerations in specific crime categories:

  • The rate of Perjury or False Accusations is highest in child sex abuse cases (82%) and homicide cases (67%).
  • The rate of Official Misconduct is highest in homicide cases (59%) and child sex abuse cases (46%).
  • The rate of Mistaken Identifications is highest in in Robbery cases (83%) and adult sexual assault cases (73%).
  • The rate of False or Misleading Forensic Evidence is highest in adult sexual assault cases (33%) and child sex abuse cases (23%).
  • The rate of False Confessions is highest in homicide cases (21%).

Recent Findings

False Confessions: False confessions show up in 13% of all the cases in the registry, but they are present in 25% of DNA exonerations. Why are false confessions twice as common in DNA exonerations as in non-DNA exonerations? We think the answer is pretty straightforward: false confessions are very hard to overcome. DNA is more likely to do than other types of evidence of innocence.

Mistaken Eyewitness Identifications:
It's often said that eyewitness misidentification is the most common cause of false convictions. But perjury and false accusation (56%) and official misconduct (46%) are both more frequent among exonerations than mistaken eyewitness identifications (36%). What led to this misconception? Before the Registry, the best data on exonerations were based on DNA cases, most of which involve rape convictions - and for rape exonerations, mistaken eyewitness identification is indeed the most common contributing factor, occurring 74% of the time.

Record Breaking Year: In 2013, there were a record number of exonerations - 86 that were listed by the end of 2013, 91 that we knew about as of August 2014, and probably more 2013 exonerations that we will learn about as time passes.