The National Registry of Exonerations has just released data about exonerations in 2017 and historically. The data gives us a great deal of insight into who has been wrongfully convicted and, in many cases, what led to that wrongful conviction. Interestingly, Harris County, Texas, has had an outsized impact on the nationwide picture of exonerations.
According to data from the Registry, Harris County exonerated 10 people last year who had been falsely convicted of drug possession. That's not the whole story, however. The county's conviction integrity unit has spent the last few years combing through a number of questionable drug possession convictions. In 2015, it exonerated more than 40 people, and it did the same for almost 50 more in 2016. The effort is thought to be winding down.
Conviction integrity units and exoneration groups helped 80 of the exonerees
There are now approximately 33 conviction integrity units in prosecutors' offices around the country. They, along with around 52 nonprofit exoneration groups such as the Innocence Project, were responsible for 80 of the estimated 139 exonerations last year.
"It makes you really wonder what would the feelings on exoneration be, and how many would we see, if there were more of these organizations," said the Registry's editor.
2017's exonerees lost 1,478 years to wrongful conviction
The 139 people known to the Registry to have been exonerated last year averaged 10.6 years behind bars before their wrongful convictions were overturned. One man, Ladura Watkins, spent 41 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated because his conviction was based largely on a microscopic hair analysis, which is a technique now discredited by the FBI.
Over half of these wrongful convictions were brought on by misconduct
When police coerce witnesses, labs falsify test results, or prosecutors refuse to turn over evidence of a defendant's possible innocence, they commit serious misconduct. Unfortunately, this type of misconduct was responsible for at least 84 wrongful convictions that ended in exoneration last year.
66 Americans exonerated of crimes that didn't even happen
Just under half of 2017's exonerations involved situations where the underlying crime did not occur. Such cases included drug possession cases with no drugs involved, false allegations of child sexual abuse, and nine murder cases where the death involved was not a murder. For example, death row inmate Rodricus Crawford was exonerated after it was shown that his infant son had likely died of sepsis, a serious medical condition, rather than by child abuse.
In every criminal case, there is a serious chance that the prosecution is wrong. We all need to remember that each defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.