Monday, March 18, 2024

Most Individuals Exonerated Last Year Were People of Color with Official Misconduct a Frequent Factor

The National Registry of Exonerations released a comprehensive report on exonerations in 2023. The Registry recorded 153 exonerations last year and nearly 84 percent (127/153) were people of color. Nearly 61 percent of the exonerees (93/153) were Black. 

New data show that wrongfully convicted individuals in the United States have received at least $4 billion in compensation since 1989 from state and local governments. The payout has nearly doubled in just five years since 2019, when compensation to exonerees in the U.S. totaled about $2.2 billion. This significant increase reflects the growing number of exonerations, and is one of the costs of wrongful convictions, particularly in Illinois, New York, and Texas. 

New York leads the pack with $1.1 billion total compensation, 70 percent of which was for damages in civil lawsuits (which are almost always paid by cities and counties), while in Texas, exonerees received $192 million, 86 percent of which was paid as state compensation. 

Jeffrey Gutman, special contributor to the National Registry of Exonerations and professor at the George Washington University Law School who collected the data, said, “This total will get bigger in the next few years, rapidly. The number of states that pay compensation to exonerees is growing. Many exonerees have claims that are still pending, and we'll keep seeing more exonerations of innocent people who spent decades in prison, probably at an accelerating rate." 

Since 1989, 50 percent of all exonerees and 53 percent of murder exonerees have received some compensation. But the amounts they received vary enormously. 

Official misconduct occurred in at least 118 exonerations (or 77 percent) in 2023. Seventy-five homicide cases—85 percent of homicide exonerations in 2023—were marred by official misconduct. Other contributing factors in various combinations included perjury or false accusations, false or misleading forensic evidence, mistaken witness identification, false confessions, and ineffective assistance of counsel. 

“This demonstrates once again a troubling reality in America’s justice system,” said Barbara O’Brien, professor at Michigan State University College of Law and editor of the Registry. “With 153 exonerations, predominantly affecting people of color, and billions in compensation paid since 1989, the toll of wrongful convictions is undeniable.” 

“Official misconduct continued to undermine the integrity of the most series cases, including those in which innocent defendants were sentenced to death,” O’Brien said. “And while compensation is being granted, it remains inequitable.” 

People exonerated in 2023 lost 2,230 years collectively for crimes they did not commit. That is an average of 14.6 years per exoneree for wrongful imprisonment. 

“The numbers are staggering. People exonerated last year lost 22 centuries of time all together,” said Ken Otterbourg, report co-author and Registry researcher. “Some innocent people go into prison as a young person and come out with grey hair. The vast majority of innocent people who were exonerated last year after being wrongly convicted of crimes are Black or Brown.” 

The top states for exonerations (in order) for 2023 were Illinois, Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania, with California and Oregon tied for fifth. The top four states accounted for 54 percent of the 2023 exonerations. 

The report found that 86 exonerations—56 percent of the 153 exonerations—were of defendants who had been convicted of murder, four of whom had been sentenced to death.

The report is available here.

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