February 12, 2016, by the Editorial Board of the New York Times
In 2015, 149 people convicted of crimes large and small — from capital murder to burglary — were exonerated. It is the highest yearly total since this grim form of record-keeping began, in 1989.
In that time, there have been at least 1,733 exonerations across the country, and the pace keeps picking up. On average, about three convicted people are now exonerated of their crimes every week, according to the annual report of the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry defines an exoneration as a case in which someone convicted of a crime is cleared of all charges based on new evidence of innocence.
The individual cost to those wrongly convicted is steep: Last year’s group spent an average of more than 14 years behind bars. Five had been sentenced to death. Amazingly, half of the exonerations involved cases in which no crime occurred at all — for example, a conviction of murder by arson that later turned out to be based on faulty fire science.
Equally eye-opening is the list of reasons behind these miscarriages of justice. For instance, 27 of last year’s exonerations were for convictions based on a false confession. This happened most often in homicide cases in which the defendant was a juvenile, intellectually disabled, mentally ill or some combination of the three. In nearly half of all 2015 exonerations, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial.
These numbers are a bracing reminder that admissions of guilt are unreliable far more often than is generally believed. Some defendants, especially the young or mentally impaired, can be pushed to admit guilt when they are innocent. Some with prior criminal records may not be able to afford bail but don’t want to spend months in pretrial detention or risk a much longer sentence if they choose to go to trial.
Official misconduct — including perjury, withholding of exculpatory evidence and coercive interrogation practices — occurred in three of every four exonerations involving homicide, and it was an important factor in many other cases as well.
As high as these exoneration numbers are, they still understate the scope of the problem, since not all cases involving misconduct come to light.
The good news is that Americans are starting to grasp the depth of the problem. The Innocence Project, now more than 20 years old, has shown again and again how many ways a conviction can be obtained wrongfully. And in-depth investigations of questionable murder convictions by popular shows like “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” have led to calls for greater prosecutorial accountability.
As technologies like DNA testing have become more widely used, some prosecutors’ offices have begun to take responsibility for correcting their own errors. In the last seven years, almost two dozen offices in 11 states and the District of Columbia have opened conviction-integrity units to re-examine old cases. But the units vary widely in effectiveness. Half have never exonerated anyone, while two, in Brooklyn and in Harris County, Tex., were responsible for one-third of last year’s exonerations.
It is good to see any degree of self-reflection and accountability from prosecutors, who wield enormous and often unreviewed power in the criminal justice system. It would be even better for them to put in place safeguards that would prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.