According to a new archive released by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, more than 2,000 convicted people have been exonerated of their crimes in the last 23 years.
The data gathered by the two prominent law schools and entered into The National Registry of Exonerations, is the first of its kind for documenting people convicted of a crime and then exonerated. And so far, the record-keeping system has painstakingly gathered and entered searchable data on 873 falsely accused people cleared of their crimes.
Researchers added that they are aware of at least another 1170 defendants whose convictions were also dismissed in 13 "group exonerations" that followed the discovery of major police scandals. But these were not included in the statistics researchers said, because their definition of exoneration is "conservative," and based upon "formal decisions by courts and executive officers." Thus they concluded that many convicted defendants who are undoubtedly innocent, were not represented by the report.
The data gathered covered exonerations between January 1989 and March 1 2012, but there have been 18 more cases added to the database since then.
On average said the report, since 2000, there has been 52 exonerations a year. The majority of those cleared (93%), were men; half were black, 38% white, 11% Hispanic and 2% Native American or Asian. Yet only 37% of exonerations involved the use of DNA evidence. Collectively as a group said researchers, the wrongly convicted spent an astonishing 10,000 years in prison – an average of more than 11 years each.
One of the men recently exonerated was Richard Miles of Texas, who spent 13 years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit. It might have been more had it not been discovered that prosecutors had hidden reports implicating other suspects. Miles was released in 2009, but it was another year before prosecution witnesses recanted their testimonies. Finally on Feb. 15 2012 said the registry, a court found Mr Miles "actually innocent."
Shawn Drumgold was convicted of first-degree murder in October 1989 and was sentenced to life in prison. Fourteen years after his conviction, two witnesses recanted their original testimonies citing police intimidation. Further official misconduct and intimidation by authorities it was learned, had also silenced Drumgold's alibis. His exoneration came in 2003.
Shockingly, over 50% of false conviction charges stemmed from perjury or false accusations. This was followed by mistaken eyewitness identification (43%), and official misconduct (42%). Astoundingly, in 66% of homicide charge cases, the leading contributing cause for conviction was perjury or false accusation.
"We have no doubt that we have missed the vast majority of low-visibility exonerations," explained researchers, particularly as some cases they added, were "actively concealed from public attention."
Law professor Samuel Gross from the University of Michigan and editor of the newly established National Registry of Exonerations, told Time magazine today that in many of the wrongly convicted cases:
There's usually someone to blame for the underlying tragedy, often more than one person, and the common culprits include defense lawyers as well as police officers, prosecutors and judges. In many cases, everybody involved has egg on their face.
The registry said it hopes to learn more about false convictions in the future, so that it might help prevent them. "Failing that," the report added, we could identify and correct them "after they occur."