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Why So Few Misdemeanor Exonerations? 

Posted on October 6, 2015
Fewer than 2% of the exonerations in the Registry—28 out of 1,671—are for misdemeanors, despite the fact that they make up at least 80% of criminal convictions in the United States. We don’t know the actual proportion because in many jurisdictions misdemeanors are never counted. 

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The Evidence that Led to Misdemeanor Exonerations 

There’s a common view that misdemeanor convictions are no big deal. That’s false. They carry lesser punishments than felonies, but have serious and lasting consequences: weeks or months of imprisonment; years of probation; fines and fees many defendants cannot afford. They result in loss of employment, government benefits and housing, deportation, bankruptcy and homelessness. They produce permanent criminal records and undermine future opportunities. 

For many misdemeanor defendants, however, the worst consequence is what happens before conviction. If they can’t make bail, they confront a stark choice: take a deal, plead guilty and go home immediately or soon; or wait in jail for months to go to trial and risk additional months behind bars. Almost everyone takes the deal. 

Given their number, there is little doubt that false convictions for misdemeanors are at least several times more frequent than false felony convictions. Still, it’s no surprise that misdemeanor exonerations are extremely rare. Everyone involved in the process—innocence projects, prosecutors’ offices, courts, police departments—is inundated with claims of innocence from felony defendants who were sentenced to 10 years or more in prison, or life, or death. Every post-conviction investigation is a big commitment. For misdemeanors, no one has the time. 

The 28 misdemeanor exonerations we know about illustrate this problem. 

  • Fourteen of the 28 pled guilty to misdemeanor drug crimes in Harris County, Texas, and were cleared when routine post-conviction lab tests found no drugs. Most likely these exonerees couldn’t make bail and pled guilty to avoid lengthy pre-trial detention.

  • One misdemeanor exoneree was bullied into pleading guilty to filing a false report when her rape complaint was not believed. She was exonerated years later when a cold hit on the DNA profile developed from the semen recovered from her body identified the source as a known serial rapist. 

  • Four defendants who were convicted of misdemeanor assault or similar crimes against police officers were exonerated when a surveillance photo or video turned up and showed that the officer had lied. 

  • Two other exonerees were convicted of assaulting police officers in an encounter that left both defendants seriously injured. They were exonerated after the officers were indicted for a pattern of perjury, corruption and abuse. 

  • The remaining 7 misdemeanor cases all involved convictions for personal crimes against civilians. The convictions were reversed because evidence of innocence was excluded at trial (or in one case withheld by the prosecution), followed by dismissals or acquittals. 

Not one of the 28 known misdemeanor exonerations involved a significant post-conviction investigation. All 28 are “no crime” exonerations. In two-thirds of them, physical evidence turned up which clearly showed that no crime had been committed—DNA, drug tests, video evidence. 

On the other hand, two factors that contribute to many false convictions are almost entirely absent. Misdemeanor exonerations include only one false confession and no eyewitness misidentifications. This makes sense: overcoming that sort of evidence typically requires difficult investigations. 

How many other innocent misdemeanor defendants pled guilty or were convicted at trial in cases with no lab tests or videos to prove their innocence after the fact? We have no clue.