The National Law Journal reported that there were 87 exonerations in 2013, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. There appears to be a trend toward increased scrutiny by police and prosecutors of old case files for wrongful convictions.
"They have learned, like all the rest of us, that mistakes are made," said registry editor Samuel Gross. He is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, which runs the project with the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. "They're less likely to resist and in many cases more likely to help and cooperate."
Prosecutors insist they are merely doing their job — to see justice done. They acknowledge, however, that public awareness of false convictions has forced district attorneys to scrutinize their work. "A lot of it has been media pressure and people asking in high-profile cases, 'Do you review these cases?' " said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va. "It's just received a higher priority in larger cases and in high-profile cases."
The 2013 numbers were for exonerations identified as of Feb. 4. Thirty-three of those cases involved cooperation by police or prosecutors. Although fewer than in 2012, the number still demonstrated an increase from a decade ago. Since 1989, the registry found, 29 percent of known exonerations have featured cooperation by law enforcement. "That may be the beginning of the biggest change, because police and prosecutors are the most important actors in the criminal justice system," Gross said.
Others also attributed much of the change to DNA evidence. "DNA has taught us a lot — that there were mistakes made in the system," said Steven Jansen, vice president and chief operating officer of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a Washington nonprofit that focuses on training for federal, state and local prosecutors. "Now we've realized there were some faults in our system."
Today, more than half a dozen prosecutorial offices nationwide feature special integrity units that investigate potential wrongful convictions, according to the report. Some of these units involve teams of dedicated staff, others a single individual. Some work with nonprofit groups or defense attorneys and others investigate on their own.
Craig Watkins, the Dallas County, Texas, district attorney, set up the first such unit. His conviction-integrity unit — established in 2007 with two lawyers and a paralegal — has overseen a dozen exonerations. "I was the first African-American D.A. in Texas," Watkins said. "My life experience lent itself to question law enforcement. I wanted our justice department to work for everyone. That's why we created the unit." He acknowledged that his views were not the norm among prosecutors.
And Burns, for instance, disputed that the integrity units demonstrate a change in the way prosecutors look at past convictions. "To support the notion that somehow for the first time we've started reviewing old cases or reviewing old convictions is simply not true," he said.
He also identified a "serious problem" with the registry's report: Many of the exonerations it counted involved convicted individuals who weren't actually found to be innocent, he said — as when a conviction is overturned on appeal years later and prosecutors don't pursue retrial because lead detectives are dead or the evidence is either missing or too old. "We don't call that an exoneration," he said.
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