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The National Registry of Exonerations 2021 Annual Report: 161 Exonerations Comprising 1,849 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

by Casey J. Bastian

The National Registry of Exonerations (“NRE”) recorded a total of 226 exonerations in 2021. Of these, 161 were discovered in 2021. The remaining 65 were discovered in previous years, only being recorded by the NRE in 2021. Each of the 161 persons exonerated spent an average of 11.5 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Disturbing facts surround the causes of these wrongful convictions: 102 of 161 involved “exonerations that involved Misconduct by Government Officials,” and 64 involved “exonerations of convictions in which no crime actually occurred.” That these could be the result of any criminal justice system should itself be criminal. Such miscarriages of justice are an indictment of the American justice system.

The NRE is a collaborative project between The University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law. The NRE is marking the tenth anniversary of its operation, having gone public in May 2012. At that time, the reliability of criminal convictions had become a topic of public discourse in America as a result of a few DNA exonerations. However, many still felt that the occurrence of wrongful convictions was rare. The 2021 Annual Report (“Report”) notes: “There is no longer a debate about the prevalence of wrongful convictions. They are not unicorns.”

The NRE website initially went public with approximately 900 cases. In 2012, this number “represented the known universe of exonerations.” Over the last ten years, the NRE has had tremendous success in raising awareness and understanding of this issue. It cannot be overstated how devastating of an impact a wrongful conviction has on an innocent person. The work of this project also provides attorneys, journalists, policymakers, researchers, and the public with verified, credible data and detailed summaries explaining how these convictions occur. The data also provides information on how the exonerations occurred, as well as providing a foundation for badly needed reforms.

The Report identifies 14 categories of relevant exoneration data. The NRE identified 103 exonerations of violent felonies. This includes nine sexual assaults and 77 homicides. Thirty exonerees were sentenced to life in prison without parole, and three were sentenced to death. Drug crime convictions constituted 21 exonerations. In addition to the exonerations resulting from official misconduct and no actual crime being committed, the list includes: convictions based on guilty pleas (48); mistaken witness identifications (47); false confessions (19); perjury or false accusation (107); false or misleading forensic evidence (33); and 51 cases involved inadequate legal defense by trial counsel. The work of innocence organizations or prosecutor-operated conviction integrity units resulted in 97 exonerations. Many of the wrongful convictions were the result of more than one type of identified misfeasance.

The NRE does not solely identify individual exonerations. There is also a Groups Registry. Such cases are found in small jurisdictions like Jackson County, Florida, to the largest cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and across three of New York’s five boroughs. In the Report, 11 new groups were identified, comprised of “nearly 1,100 men and women who were wrongfully convicted based on systemic official misconduct.” The largest group consisted of 458 individuals from the state of New York. Each conviction was related to a drug possession or sales charge and each was the result of false accusation, official misconduct, or perjury by former New York City police officer Joseph Franco.

Franco worked in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan throughout his career. That career began to unravel in early 2017 after the disgraced officer made three arrests for alleged drug transaction offenses. In each case, surveillance video was used, but a prosecutor noticed that “the surveillance footage from one of the arrests was at odds with Franco’s testimony.” The District Attorney for New York County (Manhattan) began an investigation in 2018, concerned by these discrepancies. The investigation revealed similar circumstances in the other two arrests. Each had resulted in a conviction. However, to its credit, each conviction was subsequently vacated as a result of the prosecutor’s investigation.

This prompted a larger investigation into Franco’s career. In 2019, Franco was indicted on multiple charges, including perjury. Beginning in 2021, three New York City District Attorneys moved to vacate the convictions of all 458 defendants in cases where Franco was identified as being the principal arresting officer. The Franco case is a clear example of the critical role prosecutors can play in exonerations. This requires a righteous zeal for ethics and innocence, traits frequently lacking in too many “win-at-all-costs” prosecutorial mindsets.

The 161 exonerations were found across federal courts, the Territory of Guam, and 26 states. Illinois has the worst record with 38 exonerations, followed by New York (18), California and Michigan (11 each), Louisiana and Texas (9), Georgia (8), and Pennsylvania and federal courts (7). The remaining 18 states had six or fewer, with an average of two exonerations from each.

Misconduct of corrupt police officers drives Illinois’ shameful ranking. Sergeant Ronald Watts of the Chicago Police Department is responsible for 14 wrongful convictions. Each was later exonerated because it was proven that Watts planted drugs on those who refused to pay bribes. Wrongful convictions of weapons possession constitute 15 other Illinois exonerations. Murder or manslaughter convictions constitute 11 of New York’s exonerations, and nine in Michigan, California, and Georgia, while Pennsylvania recorded six such exonerated convictions.

The Report recognizes 1,849 years lost to wrongful incarcerations, but this underestimates the actual time lost. It does not account for time spent by an individual, sometimes years, in jail awaiting trial or deposition. In 14 cases, the exonerees spent more than a quarter century in prison; in two cases, more than 45 years were spent in prison by innocent people. One such man is Anthony Mazza, who served 47 years and two months before being exonerated in 2021 for a murder he didn’t commit — the most time served by any one person listed by the NRE.

The Report presented the illustrative cases of seven individuals. Khalil Islam and Muhammad Aziz were convicted in 1965 of murdering Malcolm X. Though released in the 1980s, questions lingered about their guilt. An extensive investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit of New York County District Attorney’s Office, alongside the Innocence Project, resulted in their exoneration in 2021. Unfortunately, Islam died in 2009. As for Aziz, he calls the exoneration “welcome but insufficient.” He added, “I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent. I am an 83-year-old who was victimized by the criminal justice system.”

The Report also shared the story of Yutico Briley. He was convicted in 2013 of a robbery in Louisiana. He received 60 years in prison. In 2021, Briley was exonerated by the new Conviction Integrity Unit in the Orleans Parish Attorney’s Office. The Briley case identified mistaken ID, official misconduct, and inadequate legal defense as the primary causes of his wrongful conviction. Emerson Stevens was convicted in 1986 for murder and remained in Virginia prisons until being granted an absolute pardon by Governor Ralph Northam on August 13, 2021. False or misleading forensic evidence, perjury or false accusation, and official misconduct were identified as causes of Stevens’ wrongful conviction.

Terry Talley was convicted of rape after a one-day trial in 1981. He was sentenced to life plus ten years. One witness identified Talley because the suspect had a “negro smell.” Despondent over the conviction, Talley pleaded guilty to two other charged rapes. In 2008, the Georgia Innocence Project began assisting Talley, and DNA testing excluded him as the rapist. In February 2021, Talley was exonerated and freed at the age of 63, after 39 years in prison. Mistaken witness ID, perjury or false accusation, and official misconduct were identified as contributing factors in this wrongful conviction.

Kim Hoover-Moore was convicted in 2003 for the murder of a seven-month-old girl in her care. She was sentenced to 15 years to life. The Wrongful Conviction Project in the Office for the Ohio Public Defender began looking into her case in 2010. Hoover-Moore’s attorney said, “The medical evidence proves what Ms. Hoover-Moore has always said. She is innocent.” On October 2021, her convictions were vacated, and the case dismissed. The Report lists false or misleading forensic evidence as the primary factor in her wrongful conviction. In 2005, Kimberly Long was convicted of murdering her boyfriend. Long was sentenced to 15 years to life. The California Innocence Project took up Long’s case in 2010. DNA testing of a cigarette butt identified male DNA that was not her boyfriend’s; it was also proven that the boyfriend had died before she came home on the night in question. In 2020, the California Supreme Court vacated her conviction. An inadequate defense team contributed to her conviction.

The Report identified several factors that have fueled the recent increase of exonerations. They include the “expanding influence of professional exonerators,” especially Conviction Integrity Units; efforts by those wrongfully convicted who vigorously pursue their freedom; the “evolving role of the courts,” as more judges today are open to vacating convictions than at any time in the past; and the public’s growing acknowledgment that wrongful convictions can and do happen and with a frequency few would believe just a few years ago. When the NRE website was launched, there were only 18 conviction integrity units; today, there are 93 across the U.S.

Last year was a tragic milestone according to the Report. A total of 25,000 years has been documented as lost by the NRE. Yet, this only invigorates those working with the NRE to eliminate and redress wrongful convictions in America. It should go without saying that no innocent person should ever be imprisoned. The work of the NRE is vital, and as the NRE proclaims: “Every story counts.” 

Sources: The National Registry of Exonerations 2021 Annual Report, reason.com

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