The National Registry of Exonerations reported that a record number of exonerations in 2018 involved misconduct by police or prosecutors, and a record number of people were cleared after wrongful convictions stemming from perjury or false accusations.
The report, Exonerations in 2018, added 151 people exonerated last year to the National Registry, bringing the total number nationwide since 1989 to 2373 exonerations. Of these, 68 people were exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of homicides, including two men who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
Official misconduct occurred in at least 107 exonerations, including 54 homicide cases, the National Registry found. The most common misconduct—which includes a range of behavior from police officers threatening witnesses and forensic analysts falsifying test results to child welfare workers pressuring children to claim sexual abuse where none occurred—involves police or prosecutors (or both) concealing exculpatory evidence.
A record 111 cases included witnesses who committed perjury or falsely accused the defendant; in 50 of these cases, the exoneree was falsely accused of a crime that never occurred.
Official misconduct and perjury/false accusation were the leading factors contributing to wrongful homicide convictions—79 percent of which involved police and/or prosecutorial misconduct and 77 percent (52 cases) of which involved perjury or false accusation. Both factors were present in more than two-thirds of homicide exonerations.
An analysis of the 2018 data by the Death Penalty Information Center revealed that at least five people were exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted in cases that involved the misuse or threatened use of the death penalty.
DPIC identified one of these exonerees as Matthew Sopron, who was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1998 after an 18-year-old prosecution witness falsely implicated him after officials threatened him with the death penalty. The witness later testified that Mr. Sopron “had absolutely nothing to do with the murders” but he had changed his statement and implicated Mr. Sopron in order to obtain a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table.
DPIC also included in their analysis the case of Daniel Villegas, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in 1995 for a drive-by double murder in El Paso, Texas, when he was just 16 years old. A police detective handcuffed him to a chair, threatened to take him out to the desert and “beat his ass,” hit him, and told him he would die in the electric chair if he did not confess. Mr. Villegas was “terrified out of his mind” and gave the police a confession. His conviction was overturned in 2012 because he received inadequate counsel, and he was acquitted in October 2018 after new counsel presented evidence of his innocence at new trial.