The rate of exonerations has been increasing dramatically for several years, and 2015 set a new record. Last year, 149 people were exonerated after being wrongfully incarcerated for, on average, more than 14 years.
The National Registry of Exonerations reports that the number of exonerations in America has doubled since 2011. We now average nearly three exonerations a week.
A record 58 people were exonerated in homicide cases last year, including five people who had been sentenced to death, one each in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. They had served 30, 25, 28, 19, and 10 years, respectively. The longest-serving was EJI client Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated and released last April after three decades on Alabama’s death row. More than two-thirds of the people exonerated in homicide cases in 2015 were minorities; half were African American.
Exonerations in cases where the defendants falsely confessed or pleaded guilty used to be rare, but a record 27 exonerations in 2015 were for convictions based on false confessions, and a record 65 were in guilty-plea cases. More than 80 percent of the false confessions were in homicide cases, mostly by defendants who were under 18 or mentally handicapped or both, the registry reports.
The report identified official misconduct in 65 exonerations in 2015, another record number. Three-quarters of the homicide exonerations included known official misconduct. Some prosecutors have responded by forming Conviction Integrity Units to prevent, identify, and correct false convictions. There were 24 of these units nationwide in 2015, and they contributed to 58 exonerations last year. The report notes that nearly half of these exonerations came from a single office (Harris County, Texas), and half of the Conviction Integrity Units have not secured a single exoneration.
While the growing number of Conviction Integrity Units “reflects a recognition that convicting the innocent is a serious public problem,” the authors observe that much more needs to be done. “By any reasonable accounting, there are tens of thousands of false convictions each year across the country, and many more that have accumulated over the decades.”