What Does the Number of Exonerations Really Mean?

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project by the University of Michigann and Northwestern University Law School, which first went public in 2012, released its report Exonerations in the United States, 1989 – 2012.

In practical terms, what does the number of exonerations since 1989 mean?
This number represents an average of 3.5 exonerations per month, or to round it out, about one exoneration in this country every week.  An exoneree is a person who was wrongfully convicted. but who is actually innocent. Then after a period of imprisonment, the courts become convinced of this person's innocence, let them out of prison and wiped their record clean. Most people who have been wrongfully convicted are never exonerated for a multitude of reasons. Exonerations, therefore, are the tip of the iceberg of all those who have been wrongfully convicted. Exonerations, which is measureable, can be used to make an educated estimate of the number of wrongfully convicted persons. Yet until now, no one has ever pulled together all the records into one database until now. So, what does this report tell us?

  • Instead of the media reporting only the number of DNA exonerations by the Innocence Project in New York, currently at 292, there have been 908 DNA and non-DNA exonerations since 1989 (as of June 5, 2012).
  • It does not include 1170 defendants whose convictions were dismissed in 13 “group exonerations” that followed the discovery of major police scandals.
  • The report confidently states that the database has a long way to go before it even comes close to including all exonerations.

I personally know a person whose name is missing from the list. Just how underreported is this first attempt at a national database? The researchers are troubled by the fact that many of the lower profile exoneration cases were only learned about because the researchers happened to know the lawyers involved. The researchers state, "We have no doubt that we have missed the vast majority of low-visibility exonerations."

So, how do we move from the number of exonerations to an estimate of the number of wrongful convictions? In the process of gathering the data for this report, the researcher gained insight into what they did not know. For instance,

  • Exonerations are overwhelmingly rape and murder cases. What about those falsely convicted of lesser crimes whom are never exonerated because they lack the motivation and resources to seek a legal exoneration and they simply serve their time?
  • What about all the cases in which the defendant took a plea deal, not because he/she is guilty, but, despite being innocent, decided not to risk 20 years in prison when a plea would give them 2? And like above, with the lesser sentence, just serve their time rather than go to the effort to be exonerated?
  • Then there is the logical practical element that there must be cases of wrongful conviction that will never see the light of day because there is no way to prove they are innocent. In view of the high number exonerations (legally proven wrongful convictions), this number, though ultimately unknowable, could be huge.

If we have one exoneration a week, how many wrongful convictions do we have? One a day? Two a day. Regardless of the number each of us might come up with, the number is way too high for a country which prides itself in having the best criminal justice system in the world.

The more you read this report, the more educated your estimate of wrongful convictions will be. Soak it in. Share it with others: congressmen, senators, state and national, judges, prosecutors and on. Help those who are a part of the system to look in the mirror with both eyes open.

The National Registry of Exonerations

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