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May 21, 2012

What can and should we learn from the new "National Registry of Exonerations"?

As effectively reported via MSM coverage from CNN and the AP and other sources, today marked the roll-out of this amazing new web resource stlyed "The National Registry of Exonerations."  As explained on the site, this registry "is a joint project of the University of the Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law" and it aspires to "maintain an up to date list of all known exonerations in the United States since 1989." This press release via the folks at Northwestern provides some of the highlights (or should I say lowlights) about what this registry reveals and should teach us about mistakes in the criminal justice system:

More than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in America in the past 23 years. Nearly 900 of these exonerations are profiled, with searchable data and summaries of the cases on the National Registry of Exonerations...

More than 1,000 additional cases are “group exonerations” that occurred in response to 13 separate police corruption scandals, most of which involved massive planting of drugs and guns on innocent defendants. The group exonerations are described in a report from the National Registry, “Exonerations in the United States, 1989 – 2012,” but are not included in the registry itself.

As the report documents in detail, there are many more false convictions and exonerations that have not been found. “The National Registry of Exonerations gives an unprecedented view of the scope of the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “It’s a widespread problem.” “It used to be that almost all the exonerations we knew about were murder and rape cases. We’re finally beginning to see beyond that,” said Michigan Law professor Samuel Gross, editor of the registry and an author of the report. “This is a sea change.”

The report includes the following cases, most of which do not appear in any previous compilation:

  • 58 exonerations for drug, tax, white collar and other non-violent crimes
  • 39 exonerations in federal cases
  • 102 exonerations for child sex-abuse convictions
  • 129 exonerations of defendants who were convicted of crimes that never happened
  • 135 exonerations of defendants who confessed to crimes they didn’t commit
  • 71 exonerations of innocent defendants who pled guilty

Plus more than 1,000 group exoneration cases – including more than 200 drivers who were framed for drunk driving by police officers, who usually stole money from their wallets in the process.

[T]he cases in the registry show that false convictions are not one type of problem but several that require different types of solutions.

  • For murder, the biggest problem is perjury, usually by a witness who claims to have witnessed the crime or participated in it. Murder exoneration also include many false confessions.
  • In rape cases, false convictions are almost always based on eyewitness mistakes -- more often than not, mistakes by white victims who misidentify black defendants.
  • False convictions for robbery are also almost always caused by eyewitness misidentifications, but there are few exonerations because DNA evidence is hardly ever useful in robbery cases.
  • Child sex abuse exonerations are almost all about fabricated crimes that never occurred.

The 10 states with the most exonerations are Illinois, New York, Texas, California, Michigan, Louisiana, Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania (not counting the 39 exonerations in federal cases). The states with most exonerations are not necessarily those where most false convictions have occurred. “It’s clear that the exonerations we found are the tip of an iceberg,” said Gross. “Most people who are falsely convicted are not exonerated; they serve their time or die in prison. And when they are exonerated, a lot of times it happens quietly, out of public view.”

I hope to find some time to review the summary findings and this full report from the registry in order to draw some additional (sentencing-related?) lessons from this extraordinarily important and valuable new criminal justice resource.

May 21, 2012 at 06:35 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Just the tip of the iceberg though, this registry only goes back to 1989, relatively recent history.
Would find it fascinating to also have a look at the data from the late 50s through the 80s.

Posted by: Rich | May 21, 2012 7:22:05 PM

"More than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in America in the past 23 years."

Could someone tell us the total number of convictions for serious crimes over the last 23 years?

I'm serious. Does anyone know it?

It's needed so that we know what we're dealing with. If the numbers show nothing more than that the system is good but imperfect, then the headline might just as well be, "Sun Rises in East." If, however, the numbers show that we're routinely convicting a large percentage of factually innocent people, then it's a horse of a different color.

Also, is any academic out there planning to give us a National Registry of Erroneous Acquittals? Maybe with a follow-up list of what the erroneously acquitted criminal did next?

Oh. Right. Didn't think so.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2012 7:56:07 PM

Shut up Bill Otis.

Look at the home page of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Read about the case of Richard Miles. He spent 13 years in prison because prosecutors hid evidence. He spent 13 years in prison until a Texas court declared him actually innocent. If that doesn't get your blood boiling, something is wrong with you. What will happen to those prosecutors who hid evidence? Probably nothing. They probably won't even lose their jobs. They should have to go to prison for at least as long as Mr. Miles did.

Go read Harlan's concurring opinion in Winship: Pay attention to the part about the "fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free." In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 372, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368, 90 S. Ct. 1068 (1970).

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 21, 2012 8:06:00 PM

I want fairness credit for this comment, since it is rare that I defend the lawyer profession.

These numbers are worthless, pro-defense, lying propaganda, lying by omission.

What was omitted was a denominator. I understand that lawyer math stops at the fourth grade, and fractions are taught in the fifth grade, but we need a denominator.

Assume 2 million prosecutions a year, for a total of 46 million prosecutions over 23 years of study. If you can only find 3000 false convictions, that is a superb and unbelievable error rate. The odds are that there are millions of false convictions.

The study would require review of a random sample by topnotch investigators, and an estimate from them. That study can be done for a couple of $millions by sampling methods. It is worthwhile, and their findings should be used to fix the Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 21, 2012 8:08:05 PM

"Pay attention to the part about the "fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free." In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 372, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368, 90 S. Ct. 1068 (1970)."

CCDC don't be frustrated by the facts. I had not read Bill's comment before posting mine, but they basically have the same criticism of the study. And it is correct. So both extremes here are in consensus about this study. It would not be allowed in a high school sociology class. The professor would show kindness to the student by returning it for fixing before failing it for its fatal flaw, the absence of a denominator.

""better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer", expressed by the English jurist William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s."

Blackstone was a Royalist toadie. He voted for the Stamp Act. He tried our beloved patriots and condemned them to death in absentia, in star chamber proceedings. He was a disgusting human being, a weasel.

Beyond its disgusting origin, it expresses the sole success of the law. Why is it better to let 10 guilty men go free? Simple, these guilty men will generate massive criminality and make work jobs for the lawyer profession. It is the expression of lawyer rent seeking.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 21, 2012 8:30:49 PM

"Shut up Bill Otis."

I thought it was, "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

Oh.......wait.........that was the notorious liberal, Chairman Mao. Glad to see we're tightening up on unwelcome ideas running around this blog.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2012 9:25:29 PM

CCDC --

"What will happen to those prosecutors who hid evidence? Probably nothing."

Which would be exactly the outcome their defense lawyers would seek. My, my, how non-judgmentalism is such a sometime thing!

"Go read Harlan's concurring opinion in Winship: Pay attention to the part about the 'fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.'"

Does that mean erroneous acquittals are to be ignored?

No.

Does it mean we should be uncurious about how many there are?

No.

Put down the bong, CCDC. It's not doing a bit of good for your reasoning.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2012 9:47:07 PM

"In rape cases, false convictions are almost always based on eyewitness mistakes -- more often than not, mistakes by white victims who misidentify black defendants."

Of course, black victims of non-hispanic white rapists are pretty rare. But the study won't tell you that. Instead, it will play into the "criminal justice system is racist" meme that we always hear. Perhaps it is, but then don't rely on misleading innuendo. Perhaps, someone ought to ask why white women appear to suffer rapes at the hands of black men far more than the other way around. And while we're at it, why don't we ever see hate crimes prosecutions in interracial rapes? Because, you know, I am sure that black rapists never ever make racial taunts during such a crime . . . .

I actually welcome scrutiny of the criminal justice system. I would also welcome scrutiny of BS innocence claims that waste everyone's time.

Posted by: federalist | May 21, 2012 10:34:13 PM

“Most people who are falsely convicted are not exonerated; they serve their time or die in prison. And when they are exonerated, a lot of times it happens quietly, out of public view.”

Too true.

Posted by: onlooker | May 21, 2012 10:54:02 PM

This study supports the end of all self-dealt immunities for careless prosecutors, and judges. These are lower than vermin, and should be made to pay for their carelessness out of personal assets only. Let them buy insurance as they force productive people to do. Judges are vermin, political hacks who lost some election and got appointed to a do nothing government job by people they have something over.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 22, 2012 12:04:31 AM

Imagine being imprisoned for years for a crime you didn't commit. What could be worse?

Imagine the depraved mentality necessary to be unmoved by the plight of imprisoned Innocent people. Is Bill Otis feeling guilty?

Posted by: Calif. Capital Defense Counsel | May 22, 2012 12:14:57 AM

@CCDC
"Imagine being imprisoned for years for a crime you didn't commit. What could be worse?"

Being raped and murdered, which seems many times more likely than spending time in prison for something I didn't do.

"Is Bill Otis feeling guilty?"
Probably not, since he didn't do anything wrong. Are you feeling silly for posting 'shut up' like a petulant child?

Posted by: MikeinCT | May 22, 2012 1:52:54 AM

CCDC has an interesting view of the world--criminals are to be forgiven, but the state must everywhere be perfect. I generally support scrutiny of the criminal justice system, and I have no issues with righting wrongs. But I also believe in punishment of wrongdoers.

Posted by: federalist | May 22, 2012 2:40:31 AM

Risinger, D. Michael,
"Convicting the Innocent: An Empirically Justified Wrongful Conviction Rate" (September 16, 2006).
Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=931454
http://lawshu.wsits.com/uploads/risinger_Innocents.pdf

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | May 22, 2012 3:53:24 AM

The stellar advocacy of attorneys like CCDC helps limit the number of wrongful convictions that are produced by the mentalitiy of people like Bill Otis and Mike in CT.

Posted by: Silvia Voss | May 22, 2012 4:26:54 AM

Claudio's reference has a 3.3 to 5% false conviction rate for capital murder, a charge that has greater resources and oversight than others. That means that out of the 3000 people on death row, up to 150 are innocent. This is an appalling fraction. All death row convictions should be reviewed by experienced investigators, not appellate judge, and the innocent compensated in torts. Furthermore the errors found by these investigators should serve to revise criminal procedure to prevent them in the future in a disaster analysis style reform of the system. A 5% rate is consistent with the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. Perhaps, the standard should be raised to beyond any doubt on such an important verdict.

Say the rate of false conviction in lesser charges is 10% or double. That means that 4 million people have been wrongfully convicted over the past two decades. They should be compensated. This is the asbestos case of the criminal law.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 22, 2012 6:01:31 AM

The judicial process is filled with flawed individuals from the prosecutors to the juries.

I fear that the death penalty exists here in the United States as a reflection of the blood thirsty need for revenge that exists in a certain segment of our population. People that need revenge tend to manipulate the facts and toss logic to the wind.

Posted by: anon15 | May 22, 2012 7:00:53 AM

can be even worse

Bennett Barbour exonerated of rape in Virginia
Dahlia Lithwick Slate March 12, 2012,
http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2012/03/bennett_barbour_exonerated_of_rape_in_virginia_how_the_state_is_botching_the_dna_retesting_and_notification_of_old_cases.html
In September 2004, Mark Warner, then Virginia’s governor, ordered a random audit of 31 old criminal cases after a vast trove of biological evidence was discovered lying around in old case files saved by state forensic serologists. The testing of those 31 samples led to the exonerations of two convicted rapists. Warner, embarrassed by the revelations, then ordered in late 2005 that every sample obtained between 1973 and 1988 be rechecked. It amounted to thousands of files.
It was a project intended to take 18 months at a cost of $1.4 million dollars. Now in its seventh year, the cost of the project hovers at $5 million. Nobody has any idea exactly how the Virginia Department of Forensics has conducted its work. Indeed, no one knows much about the specifics of the crime lab’s work at all. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, the state located approximately 800 biological samples of DNA that could be tested. Of those, only 214 were in sufficient condition to yield accurate results. Among these, more than 70 people—one commonly cited figure is 79—appear to have been excluded as the perpetrators of a crime.


Posted by: Claudio Giusti | May 22, 2012 9:17:18 AM

CCDC --

"Imagine the depraved mentality necessary to be unmoved by the plight of imprisoned Innocent people. Is Bill Otis feeling guilty?"

If you'll cite the case where I imprisoned an innocent person, I'd be much obliged. FYI, "innocent" means "didn't do it." It does not mean, "questions have been raised."

Should I wait? I guess not, even though checking my cases is easy because I welcome the accountability that comes with using my real name. Is there some reason you want to avoid that accountability?

In the meantime, imagine the depraved mentality necessary to be eager to bamboozle a jury into putting a guilty, violent and dangerous criminal back on the street to do it again.

And imagine the depraved -- dare I say authoritarian -- mentality necessary to order those with differing viewpoints to, to use your exact locution, "shut up."

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 22, 2012 12:27:50 PM

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