Law professor named editor of National Registry of Exonerations

By Jamie Nichols

Associate Professor of Law Barbara O’Brien was named editor of the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) in September 2016. The NRE is a joint project of the University of California Irvine’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law. The project brings little known stories of falsely-convicted people to light and publishes statistical data to educate policy makers and the public on ways to decrease the frequency of false convictions.

O’Brien believes the NRE is necessary because it is the only source that documents all known exonerations. The Innocence Project and Death Penalty Information Center keep track of exonerations for specific types of cases, but there was no entity that tracked exonerations for all crimes. For example, in January 2016, 40-year-old Chad Tiller pled guilty to possession of cocaine in Magnolia, Texas and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was exonerated in September 2016 after lab tests on the suspected cocaine came back negative for any controlled substance. The Tiller case was one of the first stories published by the Registry with O’Brien as editor.

O’Brien’s main areas of scholarship examine the role of race and other extralegal factors in criminal investigations, trials, and the administration of capital punishment. She has worked with NRE’s founder, Samuel Gross, on other research on the frequency of false convictions. Most recently, she coauthored a study, published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, that estimated that more than four percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States since 1973 were innocent.

Her other research, with Professor Catherine Grosso, has examined the role of race in jury selection, capital charging, and sentencing decisions. Her research with Grosso, an associate editor of NRE, revealed that black jurors were struck down at 2.5 times the rate of white jurors in North Carolina death penalty cases. In an article just published in the University of North Carolina Law Review, they show that North Carolina defendants accused of killing white victims are much more likely to get the death penalty than when the victim was of another race.

As editor, O’Brien is responsible for all materials posted on the website. Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist Maurice Possley investigates new exonerations, and then the NRE’s research fellow reviews the information he finds. O’Brien consults throughout this process before editing the summaries and reviewing the coding.

The coding scheme captures features of the case and the types of errors that resulted in the conviction of an innocent defendant. The NRE has found that the most common types of error include mistaken witness identification, perjury or false accusations, false confessions, false or misleading forensic evidence, and official misconduct. Unfortunately, official misconduct was present in over half of the 1900 exonerations documented so far.

O’Brien said her goal as editor of the NRE is to be as thorough and transparent as possible in order to provide accurate and comprehensive information about exonerations.

“I hope the Registry continues to serve as the go-to resource for policymakers and concerned citizens who want to be informed about false convictions,” O’Brien said. “I have always been interested in how the system goes wrong, and I am excited to be part of this mission at a time when people are more receptive to the possibility that the system is flawed on many levels.”