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

Recent Findings

As of March 1, 2015:

Conviction Integrity Units: 2014 saw a substantial increase in the number of Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) - units in prosecutors' offices that review and investigate post-conviction claims of innocence -  from 9 CIUs in 2013, to 15 in 2014. CIUs played a role in 49 exonerations in 2014. In all previous years combined, CIUs were responsible for only 41 exonerations. 
Guilty Pleas: Guilty pleas account for more than 95% of criminal convictions in the US, but only 200 of the 1,555 exonerations in the Registry, about 13%.  Recently we have seen an increase in guilty plea exonerations: almost a quarter of all guilty plea exonerations in the Registry occurred in 2014 (47/200).
Record Breaking Year: 2014 was a record breaking year. We knew of 125 exonerations in 2014 as of the end of the year; and we listed 127 exonerations in 2014 as of March 1, 2015.