Each year, the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) publishes a report analyzing the exonerations of that year. Exonerations are the tip of the iceberg of those wrongfully convicted and, in that sense, they are not a perfect reflection of those wrongfully convicted. But, in the study of wrongful convictions, exonerations are the only statistical sampling we can look at in our effort to understand the problems of our criminal justice system.
It is an very readable document which we encourage you to download and read. Below are a few observations that may peak your interest. Since there is no nation-wide means of tracking exonerations (thus the need for the NRE), these figures are what the NRE is aware of. • In the United States, there were 161 exonerations in 2021, each person having spent an average of 11.5 years in prison (though with the time lost with things such as pre-trial incarceration, it is probably closer to 13 years) with the most occurring in Illinois, 38; New York, 18; California, 11; and Michigan, 11.
• Sadly, official misconduct by prosecutors or police occurred in 63 percent of the cases.
• Whereas DNA played a historic role in establishing as fact that wrongful convictions occur, in 2021 DNA was presented as evidence in only 18 percent of exonerations.
• When the NRE began, 10 percent of known exonerations contained false confessions. A false confession is when an innocent person confesses to something she/he did not do. Now, ten years later, that figure is up to 22 percent. We now understand how plea deals and certain interrogation techniques encourage false confessions by innocent people. Being able to statistically prove this reality has resulted in the courts no longer slamming the door shut on the possibility of an exoneration when a "confession" has been made.
• Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) are established inside the prosecutor’s office. They investigate possible wrongful convictions with few of the hurdles encountered by defense attorneys when they appeal a case. Just as the prosecutor’s office decides whom to prosecute, they may also decide they made a mistake. If so, they have the freedom to appear before the original court and ask the judge to vacate the conviction and immediately release the person. No appeals necessary. There are now 93 CIUs, with 21 opening in 2021. Four county CIUs exist in Michigan: Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb. Michigan has one of the eight states along with the District of Columbia which have state-wide CIUs.
• Not included in these figures are the number of individuals who belong to group exonerations, a new database for the NRE. Group exonerations are when the contributing cause of the wrongful conviction is not related to an individual but to systemic problems, such as bad forensic labs, police planting evidence in multiple drug busts, etc. Examples are Tulia, Texas in 2003, We recommend the excellent motion picture American Violet. A single officer in New York, repeatedly shown to have planted evidence, resulted in exonerating over 450 individuals. It is not that 450 convictions were carefully examined and found to be wrongful, but that the officer's testimony which resulting in these convictions could no longer be trusted.
Beyond 2021, there are four points worth mentioning relating to the NRE as a whole:
• The work of the NRE has become a significant factor in the granting of new trials and the vacating of convictions. It demonstrates that claims of innocence which were almost always ignored in the past now have a significant presence in the system and can no longer be discounted.
• The work of the NRE has resulted in changed laws. “In Illinois, Registry data helped the state pass a law banning the police from lying to child suspects during interviews.” The prevalence of jailhouse informants in wrongful convictions are persuading the California legislation to limit their use in the courts.
• At a Department of Motor Vehicles office when an exoneree did not have sufficient documentation to prove he was exonerated, presentation of his case as found in the NRE website made the difference.
• The NRE has become a significant contributor to our scientific analysis of racism in our criminal justice system The original report on Race and Wrongful Convictions, published by the NRE in 2017, was a landmark study, The NRE is currently working on an updated report.
We would also like to draw your attention to the Innocence Database, published by Hans Sherrer of Justice Denied. It contains over 65,000 US exonerations and over 106,000 exonerations outside the US. The difference is that the NRE uses different criteria and contains only cases from 1989 on (the year the first DNA exoneration occurred).
We are grateful for the work of the National Registry of Exonerations. As they enter their second decade of service, they have just hired their first Executive Director, Patricia Cummings. We wish her well as she leads the NRE in the coming years.