Researchers estimate the total number of felony convictions in the United States at nearly a million a year. The vast majority of those who are tried, convicted, and sent to prison are guilty, despite their claims to the contrary. But what percentage is actually innocent? A report released yesterday sheds some light on the issue.
According to a new archive compiled by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, more than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in the United States in the past 23 years. As appalling as that statistic looks at first glance, less than 100 people a year are falsely accused. That’s a pretty good record, unless you were one of the unfortunate 2,000. In which case, you’d spend a lot of time in prison.
Eight hundred seventy-three of the exonerated defendants spent a combined total of more than 10,000 years in prison, an average of more than 11 years each. Nine out of 10 of them are men and half are African-American. Nearly half of the 873 exonerations were homicide cases, including 101 death sentences. Over one-third of the cases were sexual assaults.
Not surprisingly, DNA evidence led to exoneration in nearly one-third of the 416 homicides and in nearly two-thirds of the 305 sexual assaults. It seems clear that without DNA, most of the exonerated individuals would still be serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.
So how did these innocent people end up in prison in the first place? The most common factor leading to false convictions was perjured testimony or false accusations. Mistaken eyewitness identification and false or misleading forensic evidence were the other major contributors. Defense lawyers, police officers, prosecutors, and judges all share some of the blame in whenever there is a miscarriage of justice. Far too often the rush to find a perpetrator outweighs the search for truth. And the consequences are devastating.
That’s why even one false conviction is one too many.