Innocent African Americans More Likely to be Wrongfully Convicted


Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for crimes he did not commit.

A new report from the National Registry of Exonerations found that African Americans convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent, and on average, African American exonerees waited three years longer before release from prison than whites.

Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States analyzes exonerations for murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes since 1989. Researchers report that innocent Black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people, and African Americans are more likely to be innocent if they are convicted of killing white victims.

Many of the wrongful murder convictions of African Americans were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism. The convictions that led to murder exonerations with Black defendants were 22 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.

The data also show that a Black person incarcerated for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

Innocent Black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. Since 1989, more than 1800 people have been exonerated after 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent people were exposed, and the overwhelming majority of the exonerees are African Americans.

“Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the Black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States and Senior Editor of the Registry.

For the third straight year, the Registry found a record number of exonerations in 2016, and a record number of cases involving official misconduct. A record high of 166 exonerations was reported last year, with 54 people exonerated of homicide. In more of these exonerations than in any previous year, government officials committed misconduct (70); the convictions were based on guilty pleas (74); no crime actually occurred (94); and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration (70).

While the number of conviction integrity units in the United States doubled from 2013 to 2016, half of the 29 units have never been involved in any exonerations.