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The First Sociological Study Of Women Exonerees Provides Base Data

Mitch Ruesink and Marvin D. Free, Jr.
Wrongful Convictions Among Women: An Exploratory Study of a Neglected Topic.
Women & Criminal Justice 16(4):1-23 (2005).

This article reviewed what was known generally about wrongful convictions by 2005.  Subjective estimates suggested that their incidence rate could be as high as one-half of 1 percent and exoneree surveys showed that racial minorities were over-represented. The authors also reviewed studies identifying the sources of wrongful convictions. Most of the wrongly convicted are men.

The authors compiled a list of 42 women wrongly convicted in the United States between 1970 and 2005 from databases compiled by the Center on Wrongful Conviction at Northwestern University and Forejustice (, and analyzed the data.

The study examined a defendant’s conviction offense, sentence, year convicted, the year charges were cleared (where appropriate), race, years incarcerated, jurisdiction, and the case outcome (pardoned/judicially exonerated/not pardoned or judicially exonerated). Additionally, factors associated with each wrongful conviction were assessed.

The two most common charges for wrongfully convicted women were murder (15) and child abuse (15). Sentences for child abuse ranged from a one-year suspended sentence to life in prison, with eight of these women receiving sentences of 40 years or more.  Several of the child abuse convictions were related to the satanic ritual/day care center sex crime panic that spread across America in the 1980s. The third most common conviction crimes were drug offenses. All eight women convicted of that crime were victims of evidence planted in 2000 by a rogue police officer in Tulia, Texas; all pardoned by the governor of Texas in 2003.

Comparing the convictions of men and women in the Forejustice database showed that half of the men were wrongly convicted of murder compared to 36% the women in the sample. Nineteen percent of the women were convicted of drug offenses compared to 12% of the men. The high percentage of wrongful drug convictions among women resulted in police misconduct being the most common source of their wrongful convictions, with eyewitness misidentification the second most frequent factor.

Fifteen of 41 of the cases in which the defendant’s race could be identified involved African Americans.  Half of the African American women were wrongly convicted of a drug offense, but this figure may have been skewed by convictions arising out of the Tulia case. Nevertheless, to the extent that the “war on drugs” disproportionately targets African-Americans, black women may indeed be more routinely wrongly convicted of drug offenses than white women.  Because of these convictions, black women in the sample on average received shorter senses than white women.  Almost half (7 of 15) of the known wrongful convictions among black women were for murder, compared to 31 percent for white women.

In sum, this preliminary study was based on limited data early in the analysis of wrongful convictions. It will be interesting to see whether later surveys based on larger data sets confirm the patterns of female exonerees. 

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