In 2019, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 143 exonerations, setting a record for the number of years lost to prison for crimes exonerees did not commit. Collectively, innocent people who were exonerated last year spent 1,908 years incarcerated, an average of 13.3 years lost per exoneree. Official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government actors accounted for at least 93 exonerations in 2019. Seventy-six defendants were exonerated of homicide.
“Right now, there are likely thousands of innocent people in U.S. jails and prisons as a result of wrongful convictions. It is hard to imagine the horror of being incarcerated today -- innocent or guilty -- as the COVID-19 virus is spreading through these closed spaces and threatening lives,” said Barbara O’Brien, the report’s author, who is a law professor at Michigan State University and the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.
Illinois had the most exonerations in 2019 with 30, followed by Pennsylvania (15), Texas (15), New York (11), Michigan (9), and California (7). The main reason for the high number of exonerations in Illinois was the continuing fallout from a scandal involving police officers who planted drugs on people who refused to pay them.
The 2019 report shows that, when faced with the power of the state, wrongly accused defendants can succumb to coercion, fear, and exhaustion and wind up behind bars, even though they are innocent. Last year, 24 exonerations involved false confessions. Thirty-four exonerations were for convictions based on guilty pleas. Fifty exonerations were for convictions in which no crime was committed, such as drug prosecutions for substances that were not illegal drugs.
County prosecutors and state attorneys general continue to open Conviction Integrity Units -- divisions of prosecutors’ offices that are dedicated to preventing, identifying, and remedying false convictions -- at a fast rate. As of the date of publication, there are 60 CIUs in operation. The 2019 report records 14 new offices that opened in 2019, as well as a newly noted CIU in Alameda County, California. The locations of the new CIUs include Contra Costa County, California; Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), Florida; Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia; and St. Louis County, Missouri. New Jersey and Michigan opened statewide CIUs in 2019 and Pennsylvania opened a statewide CIU in 2020.
The most common form of official misconduct documented in the Registry involves police or prosecutors concealing evidence that points to the defendant’s innocence. For example, Charles Finch was sentenced to death in 1976 and was exonerated in 2019 after spending almost 43 years in prison in North Carolina for a murder he did not commit. At trial, the prosecution presented testimony that pellets from a shotgun found in Mr. Finch’s car were “just like” pellets found in the victim’s body. The prosecution failed to disclose that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation had examined the pellets and was unable to find sufficient similarities. Decades later, attorneys at the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Duke University School of Law obtained the ballistics report and other evidence that had never been disclosed to Mr. Finch or his attorneys. When he was released last year, Mr. Finch, at 81 years old and using a wheelchair, said, “I’m just glad to be free. I feel good.”
This summer, the Registry will launch a new section of exonerationregistry.org to document “group exonerations.” Group exonerations involve a pattern of misconduct by official actors; most often, it is police officers who repeatedly and systematically frame innocent defendants. The study of group exonerations is important for uncovering instances and patterns of official misconduct and preventing it in the future.
Read the report “Exonerations in 2019” at http://bit.ly/ExonsIn2019