Individuals released from U.S. prisons last year after their cases were dismissed spent a total of 1,639 years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In its annual report released this week, the Registry called the figure a “record” that underlined concerns over the flaws in courtroom practices across the nation.
The 2018 list of 151 exonerations illustrated the growing importance of Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) established by prosecutors, and private efforts by Innocence Projects lined to universities, said the Registry, a joint project of 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 number of CIU units in the U.S. has tripled to 44 over the past five years, said Barbara O’Brien, editor of the Registry and author of the annual review.
“The proliferation of new CIUs gives us reason to think that the trend will continue,” said O’Brien in a statement accompanying the report. “While some are likely to continue to serve as little more than window dressing, many show signs of serious commitment to robust conviction review.”
Over 70 percent of the exonerations recorded in 2018—some 102—were linked to official misconduct, also a record number, the report said. Misconduct on the part of police, prosecutors or other government officials accounted for 79 percent of the homicide exonerations alone.
Official misconduct can cover a range of behavior, from threatening witnesses and falsification of forensic reports to false confessions extorted by police investigators.
A Chicago scandal involving police who framed individuals with drug charges when they refused to pay bribes accounted for 31 of the exonerations. The lead officer charged in the case, Sgt. Ronald Watts, was convicted after a federal investigation.
But many wrongful convictions turned on the eagerness of prosecutors to make cases with flimsy evidence or willful disregard of exonerating factors.
Richard Phillips, who was freed from a Michigan prison after spending 45 years and two months incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit, had been convicted on the false evidence of one witness who made a deal with prosecutors. Phillips, who was 26 when he was imprisoned and 72 when he got out, was freed with the assistance of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic after holding the unenviable title of the longest-serving exoneree.
He told investigators that he had expected to be “going to the [prison] graveyard.”
Although many observers assume exonerations depend on DNA evidence, just 23 of last year’s successful wrongful conviction cases used DNA to prove innocence.
Since it began, the Registry now includes more than 2,400 individuals who have been freed after wrongfully serving a total of more than 21,000 years behind bars.
Due to the Chicago scandals, Illinois led the pack with the most exonerations last year (49), followed by New York (16), Texas (16), Michigan (9), and California (6).
Although CIUs still represent a “tiny fraction” of the 2,300 prosecutors’ offices in the U.S., the Registry called the steady increase in units an encouraging sign.
“The now mainstream status of CIUs in many major metropolitan areas should provide some hope to the untold number of wrongfully convicted defendants still fighting to prove their innocence,” the report said.
Some of the 2018 Exonerees
Additional Reading: Florida’s Conviction Integrity Unit Scores First Win
The Registry’s annual report can be downloaded here.