Record Number of Falsely Convicted Prisoners Exonerated in 2013
The number of people exonerated after they were falsely convicted of crimes in the US has reached an historic high, with 87 walking free last year.
A new report from the National Registry of Exonerations finds that almost a third of the people in 2013’s unprecedented crop of exonerations were convicted in cases in which, in fact, no crime was committed – a record-breaking number in itself. Some 22 men and five women were given sentences ranging from probation to life, yet when their convictions were investigated, they were not only found to be innocent, but it was discovered that no offence had occurred in the first place.
Nicole Harris was exonerated last year after having spent eight years of a 30-year sentence in prison in Illinois for the murder of her four-year-old son Jaquari. He had died after the band from a fitted bedsheet wrapped around his neck and asphyxiated him.
Harris had confessed at the end of a 27-hour interrogation – during which she said she was threatened, pushed, called names and denied food and water – to killing her son by strangling him with a phone cord. But forensic examination showed that a phone cord had not been used, and Jaquari’s five-year-old brother had told an investigator that he had seen the younger boy play with the band from the bedsheet, tying it around his own neck, on previous occasions.
Among the 27 crimeless exonerations are several cases in which an accidental death by fire was wrongly interpreted as arson or murder. Other cases involved individuals who were falsely implicated in a fictitious crime, as well as seven cases of a sexual nature, which involved wrongful allegations of rape or child sex abuse.
Professor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor who edits the registry, said the large proportion of crimeless wrongful convictions ran counter to how most people perceive exonerations – as cases where innocence is proved when the real perpetrator confesses or is caught through DNA analysis. For these 27 people, there was no real perpetrator, as there was no crime.
“These cases used to be very uncommon, as they are extremely hard to prove,” Gross said. “There’s no DNA to prove someone else guilty, and no alternative confession to draw upon.”
Gross believes that the rising proportion of DNA-less and crimeless exonerations is a positive sign, as it suggests that the judicial system is becoming more open to, and adept at, handling such cases. “I think this reflects that prosecutors and judges have become more sensitive to the dangers of false accusations and are more willing to consider that a person is innocent even where this is no DNA to test or an alternative perpetrator coming forward,” he said.
2013 saw another record set in terms of the number of defendants who were exonerated after having initially pleaded guilty. “The pressure to plead guilty is huge,” Gross noted.
Last year’s 87 exonerations included 40 in cases of murder and one prisoner, Reginald Griffin, who had been sentenced to death. The new crop brought the total number of prisoners who have been cleared of wrongful convictions over the past 25 years to at least 1,300 – and that number, of course, does not count the people who have been wrongfully convicted but not yet cleared.
The “Exonerations in 2013” report, which is produced jointly by the University of Michigan law school and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University school of law, lists the top 10 states in terms of the number of falsely convicted prisoners who walked free as Texas (13), Illinois (9), New York (8), Washington (7), California (6), Michigan and Missouri (5), Connecticut, Georgia and Virginia (4).