by Steve Horn
The newly released 2017 edition of the National Registry of Exonerations report delivers big findings about the work done by conviction integrity units (“CIUs”), innocence projects, and what some legal experts refer to as the “two-tiered” criminal justice system.
Put together by the University of Michigan Law School, the Michigan State University College of Law, and the University of California-Irvine, the report has concluded that the work done by CIUs and innocence projects across the country has helped move the meter in the area of wrongful convictions.
But the report also points to a number which, to some, is troubling. That is, a record-high 84 official misconduct exonerations – or exonerations given because of official misconduct committed by those vested with the power of the law, such as police officers, prosecutors, and governmental officials – were given in 2017 nationwide. That’s 84 out of the 139 total exonerations, or about 60 percent, recorded by the Registry of Exonerations in 2017.
“Official misconduct encompasses a wide range of behavior — from police officers threatening witnesses, to forensic analysts falsifying test results, to child welfare workers pressuring children to claim sexual abuse where none occurred,” details the report. “But the most common misconduct documented in the cases in the Registry involves police or prosecutors (or both) concealing exculpatory evidence.”
However, almost none of those officials have been held accountable for their deeds, largely a byproduct of prosecutorial immunity.
“It’s remarkable how much official misconduct plays a role in these exonerations, and it’s remarkable when it comes to light, because it tends to stay concealed,” Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, told NBC News.
Conviction Integrity Units, Innocence Projects
Of the exonerations achieved by those eventually deemed innocent in various jurisdictions nationwide, 42 came as a result of the work done by CIUs. A CIU is somewhat akin to a government agency inspector general’s office, a body that oversees the integrity of convictions carried out by prosecutors’ offices, which has full investigative oversight power. As a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. criminal justice system, there are 33 CIU offices nationwide, which vary in staff size, degrees of political independence from prosecutors’ offices, and the amount of activity that they have carried out to date.
While CIUs have played a statistically significant role in exonerations, the Registry is careful to give credit where it thinks credit is due in terms of who initially spawned a second look at many of these convictions.
“Most CIU exonerations, however, were initially investigated by defense attorneys, innocence organizations, journalists, or others,” the report details. “In some cases, the exonerated defendants even faced concerted resistance by the prosecutors’ offices before the CIUs came around to supporting the exonerations.”
Unlike CIUs, which are embedded as part of the official state apparatus, innocence organizations are nonprofit external law firms and legal clinics that have a central mission of reversing wrongful convictions. They exist in the vast majority of states throughout the U.S. under the umbrella of the Innocence Network. And they played a major role in exonerations in 2017, according to the Registry, helping to secure a record 54 exonerations in 2017. Combined, CIUs and innocence projects secured 69 percent of exonerations for 2017.
“Fifty or a hundred years ago, an innocent defendant in prison had no one to turn to,” Michigan State University law professor Barbara O’Brien, editor of the Registry, said in a press release about the findings. “The main reason we’re seeing more exonerations now is that they can seek help from innocence organizations and prosecutors’ offices who are committed to fixing wrongful convictions and are increasingly working together.”
While CIUs and innocence projects played a vital role in securing exonerations for the wrongfully accused, the bad news is that all of the innocence projects are greatly overbooked and don’t have the staffing to take all of the possible cases. So, they have to be greatly selective in the cases they take on.
“Exonerations typically take years, if not decades, to complete, and thousands of hours. Any [innocence project] — even a relatively well-funded one — must be highly selective in choosing cases,” explains the report. “Some receive thousands of requests for assistance a year but can only take on a handful of new cases. Moreover, [innocence projects] based in law schools—innocence clinics—exist in large part to educate law students who work on cases for course credit, which limits the resources they can devote to freeing innocent defendants.”
Since 1989, innocence projects have obtained 434 exonerations.
Of the exonerations achieved, 37 of them centered on false eye-witness accounts, while 29 centered on the coaxing of false confessions. Texas was the state with the most exonerations at 23, followed by Illinois at 21, while California – a state with 39 million residents – only had nine exonerations in 2017.
Those eventually exonerated in 2017, according to the Registry report, spent an average of 10.6 years incarcerated for their convictions. That’s a total of 1,478 total years of life lost behind bars. In 2017, the person who spent the most time previously incarcerated while eventually being proven innocent, Ledura Watkins, spent over 41 years in prison for a murder of a school teacher that he did not commit.
The National Registry of Exonerations report makes all of its data easily trackable, with each exoneration having an individual case study, which can be read on its website. The Registry, which meticulously tracks every criminal justice system exoneration and tells the stories behind those wrongfully accused and incarcerated, has published these reports annually since 1989. Since the Registry began doing these reports, 2,261 exonerations have ensued.
Sources: www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/ExonerationsIn2017.pdf, www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx; http://innocencenetwork.org, www.law.msu.edu/faculty_staff/profile.php?prof=492t
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