A report released Tuesday by The National Registry of Exonerations finds there was a record number of exonerations in 2013, with two-thirds of the 87 known cases involving rape and/or murder convictions.
Many overturned convictions featured false confessions or the lack of an actual crime having been committed. A disproportionate share of exonerees were African-American and the overwhelming majority were male.
“In a steady number of cases we make horrible mistakes,” says report author Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
The definition for “exoneration” used by Gross requires that substantial new evidence enters the record, completely clearing the convicted person of wrongdoing. Cases where convictions were overturned for other reasons - such as improper jury guidance - or where charges were reduced aren’t counted.
Among the notable findings from the report are a slump in the number of exonerations based on DNA evidence in 2013 - continuing a multiyear decline after peaking in 2009 - and an uptick in the number of non-DNA exonerations. Many of the DNA cases went to trial when technology didn’t allow for such testing.
“I think some DNA exonerations will keep happening, but not in the numbers we saw 10 or 15 years ago,” Gross says. “If the other trends continue, they’ll become a smaller fraction of all exonerations as time goes on.”
No crime occurred in 27 of the 87 exoneration cases in 2013, the report says. Among those cases were Joseph Awe of Wisconsin, who served nearly three years in prison for a 2006 arson later found to be accidental. Nicole Harris of Illinois was exonerated of murder eight years after the 2005 death of her four-year-old son, who was asphyxiated by an elastic bedsheet band. Harris confessed to murdering her son after 27 hours of questioning, but his death was later determined a play-related accident based on testimony from his brother.
A large number of exonerations - 38 percent - were initiated by law enforcement. Gross believes that’s indicative of a general shift in how police, prosecutors and judges approach the possibility that mistakes do happen. “A lot of the credit for this goes to law enforcement,” he says.
There aren’t many misdemeanors on the multiyear list - which is updated based on tips and original research - but Gross says he's particularly interested in lesser crimes, such as drug possession, where people are exonerated.
“It’s pretty clear there are a lot of exonerations that happen that don’t get the attention you associate with exonerations - that don’t have a news conference on the courthouse steps,” he says.
The lack of data for lesser charges is in part because only the most dire situations attract aid from groups committed to freeing wrongly convicted inmates, Gross says. The group tabulating exonerations lacks comprehensive information to compile its admittedly incomplete set of data.
To avoid faulty convictions in the future, Gross advises prospective jurors to be sure to abide by the requirement they find criminal suspects guilty only if there's evidence proving their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Read the full report from The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools: