More inmates in the U.S. were exonerated in 2013 than in any previous year.
In a report released today, the National Registry of Exonerations—a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law—there were a record 87 exonerations in the United States. in 2013. In 17% of these, the wrongfully convicted had pleaded guilty to the crime, and in 8%, defendants had received the death penalty. Texas, Illinois, and New York led the states in exonerations, with 13, 9, and 8.
The Registry has recorded 1,300 exonerations since 1989 (when the first DNA exoneration occurred) and has identified several trends:
1. DNA exonerations are declining, while non-DNA exonerations have increased sharply.
DNA exonerations made up around one-fifth of the total in 2013, but they are slowly decreasing as a proportion of known exonerations. Today, DNA is usually tested before trial in major crimes prosecutions, so more and more DNA exonerations involve inmates convicted more than 20 years ago. Meanwhile, police and prosecutors have become more involved in pursuing other types of innocence claims.
“Advocates have long anticipated that DNA exonerations would slowly drop off, as the stores of extant biological material suitable for testing in ‘old’ cases gradually are depleted,” says Terry Maroney, law professor at Vanderbilt Law School. “We should over time also see fewer wrongful convictions in cases involving testable biological material, as pre-trial use of DNA typing picks up.”
2. Nearly one-third of the exonerations in 2013 involved crimes that never happened.
Twenty-seven of the 87 known exonerations were in cases in which the crime in question didn’t actually exist.
The number of exonerations in which no crime occurred has steadily increased. In eight illustrative case studies listed in the report, four involved nonexistent crimes—an arson, a murder, and two assaults. Two convictions resulted from false testimony from alleged victims, and two cases were “crimes” later found to be accidents.
3. Most exonerations in 2013, and every year, are homicides and sexual assaults, although the proportion of exonerations that do not involve these crimes is steadily increasing.
Last year, 40 exonerations were of convictions for murder, and 18 were rape or sexual assault cases. The Registry report explains that the money and manpower required to pursue exonerations are scarce, and that most of these resources are used for major felonies in which inmates face execution or life in prison. Most exonerations, therefore, involve the most serious violent crimes with the toughest sentences.
But the proportional decrease in these exonerations, the study suggests, may indicate a greater willingness in the criminal justice system to pursue the kinds of innocence cases that have previously been overlooked: cases with lighter sentences; convictions stemming from guilty pleas (from defendants who accepted plea bargains); and cases with no DNA or other biological material available as evidence.
4. Law enforcement cooperation in exoneration cases is increasing.
In 2013, police and prosecutors cooperated with or initiated innocence investigations in 33 cases, or 38% of the total. That’s more than in any year except 2012, and it reflects a trend in the criminal justice system, says the report, of greater receptivity to reinvestigating possible false convictions.
5. Nearly one in five exonerated defendants pleaded guilty to the crime.
Fifteen wrongful convictions—a record number—involved guilty pleas, and that number is increasing. In one case study detailed in the report, a Tennessee man named Adam Tatum pleaded guilty to drug possession and assaulting a police officer (who falsely accused him of assault after beating him during an arrest).
Another exoneree was convicted of murdering her son (although his death was later found to be an accident) after she offered a false confession. It was later revealed that her confession was coerced—police had threatened her physically and withheld food and water.
Perjured testimony and false confession (obtained through coercion or manipulation) remain key factors in wrongful convictions.
“The future of exoneration really lies in the non-DNA cases, such as those involving false ‘snitch’ testimony, faulty eyewitness accounts, advances in forensic sciences such as arson investigation, and prosecutorial misconduct,” says Maroney. “This year’s record numbers should make clear that wrongful conviction is a real danger in a wide range of cases, not just the small percentage of crimes involving testable biological evidence.”
Overall, the Registry reports that the most common reasons for wrongful convictions are, in order of frequency: false accusation/perjury (56%); police or prosecutorial misconduct (46%); mistaken witness ID (38%); false or misleading forensic evidence (22%); and false confession (12%).
The report concludes on a hopeful note: “It does seem, however, that we are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago and that we are catching more of them,” it reads. “If we are also learning from those tragic errors that have come to light, that would be a big step in the right direction.”
“Study Puts Exonerations at Record Level in U.S.” (NYTimes)
“DNA Evidence Declines as Factor in Criminal Exonerations” (National Law Journal)