How many is too many?
Eight hundred and seventy-three?
How many people wrongfully convicted of a crime are we willing to accept? Especially those who are sentenced to Death Row?
A report released Monday by the National Registry on Exonerations raises those questions and more. The registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, profiles 873 exonerations from January 1989 through February 2012. The report discusses including at least 1,170 other defendants whose convictions were dismissed after more than a dozen major police scandals. Most of those scandals involved the massive planting of drugs and guns on innocent defendants, which led to "group exonerations."
Most of the 873 exonerations profiled in the database are for homicides (416 cases, including 101 resulting in death sentences) and sexual assaults (305). The most common reasons for wrongful convictions are perjury or false accusations (in 51 percent of cases) mistaken eyewitness identification (43 percent) and official misconduct (42 percent), according to the report. False or misleading forensic evidence and false confession are other major causes for false convictions.
"The National Registry of Exonerations gives an unprecedented view of the scope of the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. "It's a widespread problem."
Including, as you might imagine, in Alabama.
Among the 873 exonerations included in the registry are 17 convictions in Alabama -- including five in Jefferson County -- later cleared in Alabama courts. One of those cases was a federal exoneration; the other 16 were state cases. Alabama ranks 14th nationally for total false convictions and 10th per resident, according to the report.
State Attorney General Luther Strange said the numbers actually make the case that Alabama's criminal proceedings result in very few errors.
"Sixteen errors out of tens of thousands of convictions does not indicate a systemic problem but rather supports the high degree of accuracy in our proceedings," he said in a statement.
But the study's authors say the number of exonerations is much higher than they have been able to document. The ones they found are "the tip of the iceberg," according to Michigan Law professor Samuel Gross, editor of the registry and an author of the report.
"Most people who are falsely convicted are not exonerated; they serve their time or die in prison," he said in a statement. "And when they are exonerated, a lot of times it happens quietly, out of public view."
Of the 16 state exonerations in Alabama, six were men sentenced to death. It does not require a vivid imagination to wonder whether a wrongly convicted person awaits execution on Alabama's Death Row or, worse, whether the state has killed an innocent person in our names.
If someone goes to prison for a crime he or she did not commit, it is an injustice. That is especially true in capital murder cases, where a life is at stake. We would like to have as much confidence in Alabama's criminal justice system as Strange professes, but the report on the national registry casts enough doubt to cause grave concern.
The National Registry of Exonerations, which will be updated on an ongoing basis, can be viewed online HERE.