Report shows uptick in number of exonerations in 2013

By Steve Thorpe and Jo Mathis

Legal News

About 1,300 prisoners falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated over the past 25 years, and many more cases are yet to be discovered, according to an annual report released this week by the National Registry of Exonerations.

False convictions happen daily, according to University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the editor of the Registry and co-author of the report.

"We have a good criminal justice system," said Gross. "The results it produces are mostly accurate. But most doesn't mean all, and in probably two, three or four percent of cases, errors do occur. And when they do, and when we have evidence that a conviction might have been a mistake, we should not shy away from taking it seriously. We should investigate those cases and be careful to try to prevent them. And we should try to learn from them in order to prevent them in the future."

Gross said the most important question is, "What causes false convictions, and what can be done to prevent them?"

The most common cause identified from these exonerations, Gross said, is perjury or false accusation (56 percent) followed by official misconduct (46 percent); and mistaken eyewitness identification (38 percent).

The report found that for homicide exonerations, the leading cause of false conviction is perjury or false accusations, mostly deliberate misidentifications. Homicide cases also include a high rate of official misconduct and 75 percent of all false confessions in the database.

Most sexual assault and robbery exonerations include mistaken eyewitness identifications, mostly by the victims, as well as bad forensic evidence.

Child sex abuse exonerations primarily involve false testimony by victims who fabricated crimes that never occurred at all.

Last year alone, there were 87 known exonerations, making 2013 a record-breaking year for exonerations in the United States, the study found.

The report is reluctant to state conclusively why exonerations are on the rise. It suggests that police and prosecutors may be more concerned about the danger of false convictions.

Attorney Valerie Newman of the State Appellate Defender's Office in Detroit and committee co-chairwoman of the State Bar of Michigan's Custodial Interrogation Task Force was happy about the latest numbers and optimistic that more light is being shed on the fact that innocent people can be convicted.

"That's fantastic news," she said. "National and local stories on innocence projects have helped change the tone from the old, 'If you're in the system, you must be guilty,'" she said. "They're using real faces and real stories to get that out there."

Contrary to public impression, most cases (72 percent) were not cleared on the basis of DNA evidence, according to Gross.

The reduction of exonerations based on DNA evidence was no surprise to Newman.

"When the DNA science was new, we were able to go back and look at old convictions and there was some great success," she said. "Now we've had that science in place for a number of years, so you're going to see fewer cases where that's going to be a factor."

The report strikes an optimistic note about trends and suggests that lessons are being learned: "Exonerations are excursions into the past. Those who were exonerated in 2013 were convicted, on average more than 12 years earlier; some more than 30 years earlier. There is no way to tell from these cases whether we are getting better at avoiding wrongful convictions in the first place. It does seem, however, that we are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago and that we are catching more of them. If we are also learning from those tragic errors that have come to light, that would be a big step in the right direction."

"One of the reactions we've gotten from law enforcement with the Eyewitness Identification Task Force was, 'Anything we can do better, we want to do better,'" said Newman. "It was universal among the law enforcement people. They said, 'We don't want to be responsible for putting an innocent person into the system.'"

Washtenaw County Public Defender Lloyd Powell enthusiastically endorses the National Registry of Exonerations and commends the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Northwestern University School of Law for what he calls "this splendid joint project to overcome the ever-present defects in our criminal justice system."

According to Powell, these defects include corrupt or inaccurate scientific evidence (even DNA), the abuse of authority by officials who are in positions of power, human error -- especially eye-witness identifications, false testimony, false confessions (particularly from the mentally challenged and/or intellectually disabled), false memories, false perceptions and conscious or subconscious biasness.

"This can result in the double tragedy of innocent persons being charged, convicted and undeservedly punished while the guilty completely escape penalty while continuing to abuse, harm and endanger the community," he said. "Further exacerbating conditions always is the cultural tendency nationally to underfund the defense component of our criminal justice system."

Gross said there are many false convictions that never come to light, and the causes may or may not be the same as those we know about.

He cited the recent case of Annie Dookhan, a 35-year-old state crime lab analyst employed by the state of Massachusetts, who was convicted of intentionally forging results over nine years, tainting some 40,000 drug samples involving thousands of defendants. As a result, innocent people were incarcerated and guilty people released. She pled guilty to 27 counts, including obstruction of justice and perjury and was sentenced to 3-5 years in prison.

"The truth is, we don't know the most common causes of false convictions with any certainty, because we don't know about most false convictions that have occurred," he said.

Gross said there is room for procedural improvements in the system, such as making sure the identification procedure is conducted by officers who don't know who the suspect in the case is so they can't unconsciously influence the process.

"And there is a growing movement to record all interrogations, especially interrogations of suspects in homicide cases, so if there is a possible false confession, the process by which the confession was obtained is visible and can be seen by the attorneys and judge and by the jury later on," he said.

The problem of false convictions is not a single problem with a single solution, he said, comparing it to a group of several separate diseases with causes that require different treatments.

To read the report, which includes a separate detailed summary of all known exonerations from 1989 through 2013, go to www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Exonerations_in_2013_Report.pdf.

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The National Registry of Exoneration's annual report reveals several long-term trends in exonerations in America, including:

* Of the 87 known exonerations that occurred in 2013, 27 were in cases in which no crime in fact occurred, a record number.

* The number of DNA exonerations continued to decline slowly, while the number of non-DNA exonerations rose sharply.

* Fifteen (15) known exonerations in 2013 occurred in cases where the defendants were convicted after pleading guilty, also a record number.

* A significant number of exonerations in 2013 were obtained at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement.

* Contrary to popular belief, the report shows that the number of exonerations in which DNA played a role has gradually declined since 2005, and only represented about a fifth of the total number of exonerations in 2013.

* In the same period, the number of non-DNA exonerations per year doubled from 34 in 2005 to 69 in 2013.

Published: Wed, Feb 5, 2014

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