The Registry of National Exonerations has monitored and analyzed over 2,100 instances since 1989 in which inmates were later found not to have been guilty of the crimes for which they were incarcerated. A new report from the group says at least 139 inmates were exonerated last year, a decline from record levels set in each of the two preceding years (171 in 2016 and 160 in 2015). The report attributes the decline entirely to lower numbers from one county in Texas (Harris, the home of Houston), which has over the past few years mostly worked its way through a large backlog of dubious prosecutions for drug possession. Harris County reported over 40 exonerations each year in 2015 and 2016, compared with the 10 it reported in 2017.
The 2017 exoneration figures did set new records in several areas, however, including the number of exonerations (84) based at least in part on misconduct by police, prosecutors or other officials. The most common type of misconduct was prosecutors failing to disclose evidence favorable to defendants; other official misconduct include manufacturing, falsifying or incorrectly analyzing evidence, coercing false confessions, or threatening witnesses.
Of the 139 exonerations in 2017, 98 (or 71%) involved convictions for violent felonies. Exonerations came in 51 homicide cases (murder or manslaughter), or 37% of exonerations for violent felonies. Official misconduct played a part in 84% of the homicide exoneration cases in 2017 (43 of 51); four inmates exonerated of homicide charges last year were under death sentences. Sexual abuse or assault cases accounted for 21% of violent felony exoneration cases in 2017 (the victims were children in 16 cases, adults in 13). The remaining 18 exonerations on violent felony charges (13% of that category) involved charges such as arson, attempted murder, robbery, and assault.
Non-violent offenses accounted for 29% of last year’s exonerations, with 41 inmates cleared of charges such as theft or traffic offenses. Drug offenses were involved in 16 cases (over a third of the category), with gun possession, fraud, and other violations making up the balance. The 2017 exoneration report, released March 14, mentioned briefly but did not include in its totals group exonerations in Chicago and Baltimore, which wiped out convictions for at least 96 additional defendants after those cities discovered some police were “systematically framing” drug case defendants.
The 139 exonerated inmates had been incarcerated for a total of 1,478 years, an average of 10.6 years. The longest-serving inmate exonerated last year had been imprisoned in Michigan for more than 41 years after being convicted for murdering a schoolteacher. Besides official misconduct, other factors the study found at all-time highs in last year’s exonerations were perjury or false accusations (in 87 cases), mistaken eyewitness identifications (37 cases), or false confessions (29 cases). In 66 exonerations last year, it was determined no crime had been committed: for example, a death where foul play was suspected was found to have been due to natural causes.
The report also noted that successful exoneration cases come mainly from what it termed “professional exonerators”: conviction integrity units now operating in about 33 prosecutors’ offices and 52 non-profit groups, such as the Innocence Project and law school clinics, dedicated investigating or litigating such claims.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.