The Innocence Scholarship Column May 21, 2023
My first column promised to report on wrongful conviction research in the disciplines of psychology, law, forensic science, and various social sciences. The scope of innocence scholarship is so large that there’s no one single place to access it. However, there is one source that’s important to anyone interested in wrongful convictions—The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE). Open the NRE website and you see photos of recent exonerees and a link to their page. Each exoneree’s page includes a detailed account of their wrongful conviction and exoneration.
The current number of exonerations since 1989 (3,315 on 5/20/2023), the year of the first DNA exoneration, and the time exonerees collectively lost to their wrongful imprisonment (29,100 years), is at the upper right of the home page. When the registry began in 2012 it listed fewer than 900. The steady increase of exonerations is evidence of the troubled state of American criminal justice. You can also link up to social media sites.
The top of the home page identifies three universities that maintain the NRE: University of California Irvine, and, as a matter of local pride, U of M (and I mean Michigan and not Minnesota) and Michigan State. The NRE’s educational content is found under four buttons on the ribbon under the title: Browse Cases, Issues, Reports, and Resources. The NRE’s mission statement, under a fifth button, About Us, is also worth reading. If you spend some time browsing the topics you’ll learn a lot about wrongful convictions.
The heart of the NRE is the main registry of exonerations since 1989. Data derived from the more than 3,000 carefully vetted exonerations allows the NRE to draw a composite picture of exonerations. Distinct from exonerations, estimates by various scholars put the number of felony wrongful convictions in the United States at anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 each year (a subject for a later column). Because we cannot know much about unreported wrongful convictions, the NRE's collective picture drawn from exonerations is the best proxy for overall knowledge about wrongful convictions.
The registry includes exonerees’ demographic and crime-related information and lists factors that led to the wrongful convictions (e.g., “perjury or false accusation”). Tags identify the nature of the case (such as “a shaken baby syndrome case”). The OM (official misconduct) tag lists eleven types, like “witness tampering.”
Two other registries are included: “Exonerations Before 1989” and “The Groups Registry.” The latter describes police and forensics corruption scandals that have led to thousands of cases being dismissed. Only vetted cases dismissed as a result of these scandals are also included in the main registry.
Exonerations reported by the NRE can be relied upon as accurate. Each exoneration account is carefully vetted to meet the NRE’s strict definition of actual innocence (found under the “Resources” Button). The NRE is highly transparent. Hot links allow anyone to report errors, and the NRE will make corrections and remove erroneous cases.
Seventeen wrongful conviction issues, including compensation, DNA, and false confessions are explained in detail under the “Issues” button. The “Reports” button includes past annual reviews of NRE activity; several reports review important topics like race and wrongful convictions, government misconduct, and witness recantations.
I cannot go into detail about these reports, infographics, dynamic graphs, newsletters and selected news reports (see “Resources” button). But you can get a tremendous amount of information about wrongful convictions by browsing the NRE.
Copyright © 2023 Marvin Zalman