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 March 2014, the Registry included 1,325 exonerees:

  • Sex: 92% men; 8% women.
  • Race: 46% black; 41% white; 11% Hispanic; 2% Native American or Asian.
  • Trials and Guilty Pleas: 82% convicted by juries; 7% convicted by judges; 10% pled guilty.
  • Crimes: 46% falsely convicted of homicide; 30% of sexual assault, including 12% of child sex abuse; 13% of other violent crimes; 10% of non-violent crimes.
  • DNA: 28% were exonerated at least in part by DNA evidence; 72% without DNA evidence.
  • Time served: All told, these exonerees spent nearly 12,700 years in prison–on average 10 years each. Almost all were imprisoned for years; 40% for 10 years or more; 70% for at least 5 years.
  • Contributing factors that led to their wrongful convictions (many cases have multiple factors):
    • Perjury or False Accusation: 56% of cases
    • Official Misconduct: 46%
    • Mistaken Witness Identification: 37%
    • False or Misleading Forensic Evidence: 22%
    • False Confessions: 12%

Perjury or False Accusations are most common in homicide cases (66%) and child sex abuse cases (82%).
Official Misconduct is most common in homicide cases (58%) and non-violent crimes (50%).
Mistaken Identifications are most common in adult sexual assault cases (74%) and robbery cases (82%).
False or Misleading Forensic Evidence is most common in adult sexual assault cases (34%).
False Confessions are most common in homicide cases (20%).

Recent Findings

Law Enforcement Cooperation: In 2012, for the first time, prosecutors or police initiated or cooperated in a majority of the exonerations we know about.

Female Victims: 65% of exonerations for violent crimes include a female victim. This is not surprising for sexual assault exonerations (92% female victims), but 49% of homicide exonerations also have female victims, even though only about 22% of homicide victims in the United States are women.

Witness Recantations: An ongoing study indicates that 25% of exonerations include recantations by prosecution witnesses or victims; 82% of these recantations occur in murder and child sex abuse cases. In murder cases, the recanters are usually "eyewitnesses" who were pressured by law enforcement to give false testimony. In child sex abuse cases, most are "victims" who were pressured by family members or child welfare investigators to accuse the defendants of crimes that never happened.

Record Breaking Year: In 2013, there were a record number of exonerations - 87 and counting.