Exonerated Defendants Lost 25,000 Years to Wrongful Imprisonment

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Exonerated defendants have collectively served over 25,000 years in prison as of June 1, according to a report released by The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE). Black defendants were imprisoned more frequently and for more time than white defendants, the report found.

The NRE, which has reported every known exoneration in the U.S. since 1989, called the latest tally a “dark milestone” in its perennial assessments of wrongful convictions. The new figure represents a significant increase since 2018, when the NRE calculated a total loss of 20,000 years.

The most recent report lists 2,795 exonerations, with each exoneree serving an average of eight years and 11 months, and it includes dozens of defendants exonerated since 2018 who spent over 25 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

Some 55 percent of exonerees haven’t received any compensation for their incarceration, according to research conducted by Jeffrey Gutman of the George Washington University Law School.

Still, the report represents an incomplete picture of exoneration and compensation.

The majority of false convictions go uncorrected, and the report excludes the years lost by people freed in group exonerations, as well as the time exonerees lost while in custody awaiting trial.

“Put simply, while 25,000 years is a staggering number, it is a significant undercount of the true losses these falsely convicted men and women suffered,” the report reads.

The report’s findings reflect the racial disparities that pervade prison populations and sentence lengths. Black exonerees spent an average of 10.4 years in prison, compared to 7.5 years for white and Hispanic exonerees. Organized by type of crime, the disparities remained consistent: white defendants exonerated for child sex abuse cases lost 6.6. years to wrongful conviction, while Hispanic defendants lost 7.9 years and Black defendants lost 11.4 years.

Of the NRE’s 2,795 exonerees registered in the most recent report, 1,390 are Black, 1,006 are white, 329 are Hispanic, and 70 are classified as “other.”

“The fact that racial disparities can be seen not only with respect to the number of exonerees but also as to years served demonstrates again that racism is a foundational force that corrupts fairness in the criminal legal system,” The Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck told the NRE.

No Guarantee of Compensation

For those exonerated, compensation represents a necessary — albeit insufficient — repayment for time separated from friends and family. But Gutman’s research of 2,637 exonerations totaling 24,530 lost years found that compensation is far from guaranteed. In jurisdictions with laws guaranteeing no-fault statutory compensation for wrongful imprisonment — 36 states and the District of Columbia — only about 41 percent of incarcerated exonerees received statutory compensation.

NRE Senior Researcher Maurice Possley called the no-fault wrongful imprisonment laws a “patchwork” of various standards. Wisconsin, for instance, caps compensation at $5,000 per year and $25,000 in total — regardless of the number of years an exoneree serves. The lack of uniformity among no-fault states makes compensation inconsistent.

“When you consider how many people don’t get a nickel,” Possley told The Crime Report, “it’s an atrocity.”

In total, state and municipal governments have paid over $2.9 billion in compensation to exonerees, including $756 million in statutory awards and nearly $2.2 billion in judgements and settlements in civil lawsuits. This sum, according to the NRE, “is nothing close to adequate compensation for the suffering these exonerees endured,” as well as defendants who are never exonerated.

Between 2018 and 2021, the NRE documented an increase of 635 exonerees, a surge the report attributes to an increase in exonerations for wrongful convictions of drug possession, as well as a few investigations of high-profile police misconduct cases.

In Chicago, for instance, investigations of police sergeant Ronald Watts and officer Kallatt Mohammed, who extorted residents of Chicago’s Ida B. Wells Homes for over a decade, ultimately led to nearly 100 overturned convictions.

Possley said these cases exemplify the relationship between official misconduct and wrongful convictions. Their recurrence, he added, attests to the difficulty of disciplining police officers within the municipalities they serve.

An increase in Conviction Integrity Units (CUI), established by prosecutors, also explains recent increases in exonerations, the report finds. Thirty-five CIUs began operating after January 2019, with 85 units currently in operation. Beyond calling for more CIUs, the report emphasizes the need “for the state to correct past injustices, to right wrongs.”

The NRE website lists the summaries of all known exonerations since 1989. This report provides sketches of five people exonerated in the past three years “whose stories illustrate the cruelties of wrongful convictions.” Convicted in 1994 of the murder and robbery of an elderly woman in Texas, Tina Jimerson spent around 30 years in prison after witnesses linked her to the crime by circumstantial evidence.

Sentenced by a non-unanimous jury verdict, Jermaine Hudson spent 21 years in prison for an armed robbery he didn’t commit in Louisiana. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared these verdicts unconstitutional, Hudson’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. The robbery victim unexpectedly came forward, admitting he had lied about Hudson’s guilt at the original trial. Almost 21 years to the date of his 99-year sentencing, Hudson was exonerated this March.

Other exonerees, like Lawrence Martin, who spent 19 years in prison for possession of a knife with a locking blade, were sentenced under punitive “Three Strikes” laws.

The report anticipates more cases like these in coming years. As of June 14, the NRE has documented 2,800 exonerations.

“Their cases,” the report reads, “will be among those stories noted when the Registry marks its next milestone: that of 30,000 years of life lost behind bars due to wrongful conviction and imprisonment in the U.S.”

To access the full report, click here.

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern

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