It's not exactly a “stop the presses” moment, as defense attorneys have long suspected African-Americans and other people of color are more likely to be wrongfully convicted, but now a new study by the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) has the statistics. Behind those stats are wasted lives, devastated families and proof of the system's failure.
Record High Exonerations – 3 People Per Week Found Innocent after Conviction and Prison
Last year marked the third year in a row that the number of exonerated people reached a record high. According to Time magazine, 2016 saw 166 exonerations, with some people convicted more than half a century ago.
The actual number may be higher, as it is likely there are some exonerations missed by the NRE. Approximately three people per week are now found innocent of the crime for which they were sentenced. Since 1989, 2,000 people have been exonerated. Of that number, about under half, or 47 percent, were black. Whites accounted for 39 percent of exonerations.
Of those 166 exonerations last year, it was determined in 57 percent, or 94 of the cases, that no crime was actually committed. Most of those were drug cases in which lab tests showed the defendants did not possess illegal substances. A sole exoneration was for murder, while 16 were for sexual assault. Forty-two percent involved government misconduct, while the defendants pleaded guilty in 45 percent of the cases.
Waiting for Conviction to be Overturned – Time Varies by Ethnicity
African Americans also waited significantly longer for their cases to be overturned. On average, African Americans had to wait 12 years for overturning of wrongful convictions on all crimes, while Caucasians waited nine years. Interestingly, Hispanics waited less time on average, at eight years.
Murder, Rape and Drugs – Rampant Prosecutorial & Law Enforcement Misconduct
The NRE study examined convictions overturned for murder, sexual assault and drug-related offenses. African Americans accounted for 40 percent of murder convictions, but 50 percent of exonerations. Caucasians accounted for 36 percent of murder exonerations and Hispanics accounted for 12 percent.
According to the study, law enforcement and prosecutorial or judicial wrongdoing was found in 76 percent of African American murder exonerations, and only in 63 percent of Caucasian defendants exonerated. Such wrongdoing included witness tampering and evidence concealment.
When it came to sexual assault, 60 percent of exonerations went to African American defendants, compared to just 33 percent for whites and 6 percent for Hispanics. Of the African Americans exonerated for sexual assault, 79 percent involved eyewitness misidentification. That was true for 51 percent of Caucasian defendants.
When it came to drug sale or possession exonerations, 55 percent of the defendants were African American, 25 percent were Caucasian and 18 percent were Hispanic.
Messing with Texas – Federal Lawsuit vs Harris County on Targeting Poor Defendants
Texas led the states with the highest number of exonerations in 2016. A whopping 48 defendants had their drug convictions overturned in Harris County (Houston, TX area) alone. Here's why.
The defendants had pleaded guilty to drug possession charges prior to laboratory testing. They agreed to plea bargains because they couldn't afford bail, and didn't want to sit in jail for months waiting for trial.
A federal lawsuit has been filed against the county, alleging its bail system unfairly targets poor defendants, many of whom are African American or Hispanic. Another 10 exonerations gave Texas a total of 58 out of 116 last year. Runner-up was Illinois, with 16, and New York was third with 14.
The Associated Press quotes Harris County's new District Attorney, Kim Ogg, stating, “These drug exonerations reflected a breakdown in the system. They showed how people in jail were willing to plead guilty even when they weren't to get out of jail.”
She is aiding the lawsuit in Houston federal court, and plans to implement reasonable bail procedures. Another new policy – prosecutors will no longer agree to plea deals in drug cases until the results come back from the lab. Probably too little and certainly way too late but a step in the right direction.
Just a Fraction of the Innocent get a Break on Wrongful Convictions
The 2,000 people exonerated since 1989 are just a fraction of defendants who are actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
Resources are limited, and death row inmates receive more of a focus from organizations fighting for justice than those defendants serving life sentences. Until more efforts are put into overturning wrongful convictions, thousands of innocent people, primarily those of color, will continue to rot in prison.
Lawsuits may give some of the exonerated substantial damages, but it's not possible to give someone decades of their life back, or heal the psychological and often physical wounds resulting from long-term incarceration.