A record number of people convicted of crimes were exonerated last year
More than a third of the people exonerated were convicted of murder, says a report released Wednesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. A copy of this report was reviewed by The Post before publication.
All of the people exonerated last year were exonerated in more than half of the states in the country and, before being cleared, had served an average of more than 14 years in prison. Five of the people who were exonerated had been sentenced to death.
The number of people exonerated in 2015 broke a record the organization announced earlier, when it reported that 125 people were exonerated of crimes.
All told, the National Registry says it has logged 1,733 exonerations in the country since 1989. While exonerations involving DNA may grab more attention, they accounted for a little less than a fifth of last year’s exonerations and about a quarter of all the exonerations the registry has logged.
The growing frequency with which people have been exonerated of crimes comes amid a push to reform the country’s criminal justice system, an effort that spans political parties and follows years of harsh sentencing and explosive growth in the country’s incarcerated populations. It also means that each exoneration is less of a news event, the authors of the report noted.
“Not long ago, any exoneration we heard about was major news,” the report stated. “Now it’s a familiar story. We average nearly three exonerations a week, and most get little attention.”
The report attributes this surge, in part, to more prosecutors working to revisit convictions. (In one noteworthy case from 2014, a Texas man was exonerated through testing he didn’t realize was taking place.) In addition, the report says there are also more exonerations in cases involving false confessions or guilty pleas than there used to be.
In four of 10 exonerations last year, the people had pleaded guilty, largely in cases involving charges of drug possession. About a third of all exonerations last year involved these drug possession cases.
A remarkable number of these cases occurred in just one place: Harris County, Tex., home to Houston. More than a quarter of all exonerations last year involved people in Harris County who had pleaded guilty to drug possession, only to be cleared last year.
The registry’s report described how the Harris County District Attorney’s office had investigated cases after noticing a number of people who pleaded guilty to possessing illegal drugs, only for a crime lab — sometimes months or years later — to reveal that the materials these people had were not drugs after all. Some of the people who wound up pleading guilty likely agreed to plea bargains to avoid long prison terms, the report noted. (Quite a few thing can get mistaken for drugs, it turns out.)
In some cases last year, former inmates who had been exonerated before last year received compensation in 2015. Ricky Jackson, who spent nearly four decades behind bars in Ohio, was awarded more than $1 million by a judge. Two half-brothers in North Carolina had been released in 2014, but they could only be compensated last year after Gov. Pat McCroy (R) completed a lengthy review process and formally pardoned them.
This article below discusses the problems in the zeal to convict and the lengths law enforcement go to meet the need, obsession, demand to be "tough on crime."
What neither article discusses is actual costs. The cost to prosecute, jail and in turn pay off the wrongfully convicted all at the costs of taxpayers. Qualified immunity ensures that none of those whose role in this drama will be tried and convicted or even sanctioned, leaves the monetary payments, the lawsuits and assorted other costs to those who vote, ignore or simply are unaware how this has in turn affected their schools, their infrastructure and other public amenities that comprise a city.
What we have is fraud. But the ones who do win are Lawyers. They always do.
The staggering number of wrongful convictions in America
Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, is the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.
I edit the National Registry of Exonerations, which compiles stories and data about people who were convicted of crimes in the United States and later exonerated. The cases are fascinating and important, but they wear on me: So many of them are stories of destruction and defeat.
After these facts came to light in 2000, Suarez was released. He had lost his house and his job, and his plan to become a paralegal had been derailed. His wife had divorced him, and he had lost parental rights to their three children, including one born while he was locked up. Suarez sued his former lawyer, who by then had been disbarred. He got a $1 million judgment, but the lawyer had no assets and filed for bankruptcy. Barring a miracle, Suarez will never see a penny of that judgment.
The most depressing thing about Suarez’s case is how comparatively lucky he was. He was exonerated, against all odds, because his otherwise irresponsible lawyer had actually talked to the critical witnesses and recorded those interviews despite failing later to call them at trial.
Suarez served three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The average time served for the 1,625 exonerated individuals in the registry is more than nine years. Last year, three innocent murder defendants in Cleveland were exonerated 39 years after they were convicted — they spent their entire adult lives in prison — and even they were lucky: We know without doubt that the vast majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are never identified and cleared.
Innocence projects do handle these cases, or at least some of them. They receive many times more letters than we do. I’ve spoken with lawyers who do this work, and who have successfully exonerated dozens of defendants. Most of them have clients who remain in prison despite powerful evidence of their innocence that no court will consider. And they all know that there are countless innocent defendants hidden in the piles of pleas for help that they will never have time to investigate.
How many people are convicted of crimes they did not commit? Last year, a study I co-authored on the issue was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows that 4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25.
Death sentences are uniquely well-documented. We don’t know nearly enough about other kinds of criminal cases to estimate the rate of wrongful convictions for those. The rate could be lower than for capital murders, or it could be higher. Of course, in a country with millions of criminal convictions a year and more than 2 million people behind bars, even 1 percent amounts to tens of thousands of tragic errors.
The problem may be worst at the low end of the spectrum, in misdemeanor courts where almost everybody pleads guilty. For example, in July 2014 Wassillie Gregory was charged with “harassment” of a police officer in Bethel, Alaska. The officer wrote in his report that Gregory was “clearly intoxicated” and that “I kindly tried to assist Gregory into my cruiser for protective custody when he pulled away and clawed at me with his hand.”
The next step in the case would normally be the last: Gregory pleaded guilty, without the benefit of a defense lawyer. But Gregory was exonerated a year later after a surveillance video surfaced showing the officer handcuffing him and then repeatedly slamming him onto the pavement.
In the past year, 45 defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to low-level drug crimes in Harris County, Tex. They were cleared months or years after conviction by lab tests that found no illegal drugs in the materials seized from them.
Why then did they plead guilty? As best we can tell, most were held in jail because they couldn’t make bail. When they were brought to court for the first time, they were given a take-it-or-leave-it, for-today-only offer: Plead guilty and get probation or weeks to months in jail. If they refused, they’d wait in jail for months, if not a year or more, before they got to trial, and risk additional years in prison if they were convicted. That’s a high price to pay for a chance to prove one’s innocence.
We can do better, of course — for misdemeanors, for death penalty cases and for everything in between — if we’re willing to foot the bill. It’ll cost money to achieve the quality of justice we claim to provide: to do more careful investigations, to take fewer quick guilty pleas and conduct more trials, and to make sure those trials are well done. But first we have to recognize that what we do now is not good enough.