Moral Low Ground


More Than 2,000 People Freed After Wrongful Convictions Since 1989

(Photo: Color Lines)

A landmark report from the National Registry of Exonerations has revealed that more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated since 1989. Of those, fully half were African-Americans.

The National Registry of Exonerations, a groundbreaking collaboration between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, released its report on Monday. It contains a detailed and up-to-date list of 891 exonerations in the United States since 1989 and is the largest database of exonerations ever compiled.

The report uses a conservative definition of exoneration. Only formal decisions by courts and executive officers count. It also highlights at least 1,170 defendants whose convictions were thrown out in group exonerations, usually resulting from police scandals, bringing the total number to over 2,000. Those freed in group exonerations, however, are not included in the National Registry.

Of the 873 who are covered in the report, 93 percent are men. Half are African-Americans. Thirty-seven percent were exonerated due to DNA evidence.

Since 2000, there has been an average of one exoneration per week in the United States. But those who languish behind bars have spent more than 10,000 collective years in prison for crimes they did not commit, an average of more than 11 years per person.

According to the report, the main causes of exoneration are perjury or false accusation (51 percent), followed by mistaken eyewitness identification (43 percent), official misconduct (42 percent), false or misleading forensic evidence (24 percent) and false confession (16 percent).

Juvenile and mentally disabled individuals who were freed were, respectively, five and nine time more likely to falsely confess, sometimes under duress, than other groups.

Most exoneration cases involve rape and murder, including 12 percent in death penalty cases. That last statistic implicitly raises the possibility that innocent men may be awaiting execution on death rows across America. Some may even have been wrongfully executed.

“The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis,” University of Michigan law professors Samuel Gross and Michael Schaffer, co-authors of the study, said in the report.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously declared, in Kansas v. Marsh (2006), that in the modern American judicial system there has not been “a single case… in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

The release of the National Registry of Exonerations just happens to coincide with some very loud shouting from some very credible rooftops. On May 15, Columbia University law professor James Liebman and a team of his students published a study proving that Texas likely executed an innocent man, Carlos DeLuna, in 1989.

Then, days later, Texas judge Charlie Baird came forward to admit he planned on posthumously exonerating Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for the 1991 arson deaths of his three daughters. That case was marred by the recantation of a key state’s witness and forensic testimony later determined to be “junk science.” Willingham’s exoneration was thwarted by a state appeals court.

The Death Penalty Information Center counts 140 individuals exonerated and released from death rows across America since 1973.

As of January 1, 2012, there were 3,189 people awaiting execution in the United States, which executed 43 people in 2011. Only four other countries– China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq– put more people to death,according to Amnesty International.

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