According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 2,883 known exonerations in the United States since 1989. An exoneration occurs when a person who was wrongfully convicted of a crime is officially declared innocent based on new evidence. The impact of a wrongful conviction on the victim is immeasurable – the years spent in prison is time they will never get back with their loved ones.
After serving nearly three decades in Texas’s maximum-security prison for a crime he did not commit, 55-year-old Johnny Pinchback was exonerated by DNA evidence on May 12, 2011. And he is just one of 75 exonerees in 2011.
Recently it was reported that exonerees have collectively served more than 25,600 years in prison for crimes they did not commit – a staggering average of nine years per exoneree. This record number of exonerations in recent years is evidence of a deeply flawed criminal justice system and it highlights the need for more effective measures in preventing false accusations and imprisonment in the first place.
Wrongful convictions disproportionately impact low-income African Americans. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, and yet, amount to 50 percent of known exonerations. While DNA testing and efforts by organizations such as the Innocent Project are helping to free the innocent, why is the criminal justice system choosing to turn a blind eye – or even, in some cases, incentivize misconduct by prosecutors and police officers? A report found that more than half of all wrongful convictions are the result of official misconduct.
Table: Exonerations in the United States by Year: DNA and Non-DNA
How Many People Are Wrongfully Convicted?
According to the 2019 annual report by the National Registry of Exonerations, between 2 and 10 percent of convicted individuals in U.S. prisons are innocent. This means out of the 2.3 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S., anywhere from 46,000 to 230,000 are innocent.
Where Do Wrongful Convictions Occur?
Exonerations by State
Texas continues to lead the nation in both executions and exonerations, though the state’s exoneration rate is starting to fall. From 1989 to 2021, there have been 399 exonerations in Texas – and 2,213 years lost by exonerees in prison.
- Nearly half of the cases (186 of 399) were false drug convictions.
- Almost half of the exonerees (182 of 399) were African American.
- In 2016, Texas reached a record number of exonerations: 60. Out of those, 48 exonerations were drug cases in Harris County.
- More than a quarter of the total exonerations came from Harris County. After Harris County started reviewing drug possession cases, it found that many cases that entered a plea bargain did so under false evidence. Harris County’s crime labs tested the materials seized from drug defendants after they entered the plea bargain and learned that in many cases, no illegal drugs were found.
- In the past 25 years, Texas has spent over $93 million on the 101 men and women who were wrongfully convicted.
Illinois has the second-highest exonerations between 1989 to 2021 at 363.
- The majority of exoneration cases involved some form of official misconduct or perjury/false accusation (82 and 83 percent, respectively).
- More than three-quarters (77 percent) of the exonerees are African American.
- In 2018, Illinois had its highest number of exonerations at 54.
- A large number of exonerations were linked to misconduct by corrupt police officers – specifically Sgt. Ronald Watts of the Chicago Police Department, who planted drugs on people after they refused to pay officers attempting to extort money from them.
Table: Exonerations in the United States by State and Type of Crime (Jan 1989-April 2021)
Who Is Wrongfully Convicted?
Race and Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful convictions disproportionately impact African American exonerees – in all crimes. In addition, African American exonerees served more time in prison than any other ethnicity or race. On average, they spent 10.4 years in prison – 3 years longer than Caucasian and Hispanic exonerees (National Registry of Exonerations).
Table: Average Number of Years Lost per Exoneration by Race and Crime
According to the National Registry of Exonerations:
- African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, and yet, amount to 50 percent of known exonerations.
- African Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than Caucasians.
- An African American prisoner serving time for sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a Caucasian convicted for the same crime.
- In half of all sexual assault exonerations that involved misidentification, the defendant was African American and the victim was Caucasian.
- African Americans are 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug possession than Caucasians.
- Murder cases with African American exonerees are 22 percent more likely to involve official misconduct than similar cases with Caucasian exonerees.
- According to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), more than half of death row exonerees are African American. Out of the 185 death row exonerees since 1983, 53 percent are African American.
Table: Exonerations in the United States by Year and Race (Jan 1989 – April 2021)
Nine percent of exonerees are women. Most female exonerees were convicted of crimes that never occurred — events that turned out to be accidents, deaths by suicide, and crimes that were fabricated, as well as crimes that involve child victims.
In the past, they have fallen into the following two categories:
- Child sexual abuse hysteria cases: According to the National Registry of Exonerations, the most recent child sexual abuse hysteria conviction occurred in 1995. During the 1980s and early 1990s, accusations of sexual abuse swept the nation – targeting people who were taking care of children including daycare workers and school teachers. Over a hundred people were convicted, not on factual evidence, but on outrageous accusations involving satanic rituals and other highly unlikely occurrences. Much like the Salem witch trials of 1692, these cases were based more on panic and fear, than on facts.
- Shaken baby syndrome cases: The shaken baby syndrome hypothesis (now referred to as “abusive head trauma”) is a serious brain injury that occurs from forcefully shaking an infant or toddler. It is flawed and has been scientifically discredited, but only after wrongfully convicting many innocent people in the process. In the 1970s, the pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Norman Guthkelch advanced the hypothesis that babies with a certain pattern of injuries – brain swelling, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas – had been abused in this way, even if there were no external or skeletal injuries.
Newer research has proven that many other factors, including accidents, diseases, and genetic conditions can cause the triad of injuries and symptoms that are associated with the shaken baby syndrome diagnosis. Infants can suffer head injuries with minimal force, and they can seem normal after a serious brain and skull injury.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations:
- Out of the 2,880 people who have been exonerated over the last three decades, 251 (nine percent) are women.
- Female exonerees have lost a total of 1,059 years – an average of 4.2 years per exoneree.
- More than half of female exonerees were Caucasian, while 29 percent were African American, and 12 percent were Hispanic.
- Perjury or false accusation is the most common contributing factor in almost half of all female wrongful convictions (125 out of 251).
- Official misconduct was the second most common contributing factor to female wrongful convictions – making up 114 (45 percent) cases.
- Over the past three decades, nearly 73 percent of women exonerated were wrongfully convicted of crimes that did not occur – three times the rate of men.
- 40 percent of women were exonerated for crimes involving child victims, compared with 22 percent of male exonerees. They were wrongfully convicted of harming their own children or other children in their care.
- Women are exonerated by DNA evidence at far lower rates than men. So far, DNA evidence has helped prove the innocence of 13 women.
Table: Exonerations in the United States by Gender and Year (Jan 1989 – April 2021)
Contributing Factors to Wrongful Convictions
Research shows that there are five main factors that contribute to wrongful convictions: official misconduct, eyewitness misidentification, perjury or false accusation, false confessions, and false or misleading forensic evidence. False accusation and perjury is the leading cause – contributing to over 70 percent of wrongful convictions.
Dr. Jon Gould, who has studied wrongful convictions extensively, also identified 10 “factors” (not causes) that were common in a wrongful conviction of an innocent person. These included:
- Younger defendant
- Criminal history
- Weak prosecution case
- Prosecution withheld evidence
- Lying by a non-eyewitness
- Unintentional witness misidentification
- Misinterpreting forensic evidence at trial
- Weak defense
- Defendant offered a family witness
- States with a “punitive” culture
Title: Exonerations in the United States by Contributing Factor and Type of Crime (Jan.1989-Oct.2021)
Official misconduct by police officers and prosecutors is a contributing factor to more than half of the wrongful convictions in the U.S. – specifically the concealing of exculpatory evidence – and yet, prosecutors and police so rarely face disciplinary actions for what they did. Exculpatory evidence is evidence that could exonerate the defendant of guilt.
The recent documentary, The Phantom, examines how Texas sent an innocent man, Carlos DeLuna to prison and sentenced him to death while leaving the real killer behind. There were police tapes that captured everything that had happened the night of the murder – including the police manhunt on the radio, and yet, the only evidence presented at trial was the victim, Wanda Lopez’s call.
Political and societal influence can also play a key role. Elected officials, such as the District Attorney or mayor face public pressure to resolve a case and hold someone accountable for the crime as quickly as possible, especially close to election time. That can lead to an incomplete investigation and a possible wrongful conviction.
According to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations,
- Official misconduct contributed to the wrongful convictions of 54 percent of exonerees. The rate of misconduct tends to be higher within more serious crimes.
- The most common type of official misconduct – concealing exculpatory evidence – took place in 44 percent of exonerations.
- Police officers committed misconduct in 35 percent of the cases and were mostly responsible for witness tampering, misconduct in interrogation, and fabricating evidence – as well as concealing exculpatory evidence and perjury at trial.
- Prosecutors committed misconduct in 30 percent of the cases and were mostly responsible for the concealing of exculpatory evidence and misconduct at trial, as well as witness tampering.
- African American exonerees are slightly more likely than Caucasian exonerees to become victims of official misconduct (57 percent to 52 percent). This gap increases, depending on the type and severity of the crime.
- In murder cases, African Americans are victims of official misconduct in 78 percent of exonerations, compared to 64 percent for Caucasians. The most significant gap is seen in drug crimes – 47 percent to 22 percent, respectively.
- Prosecutors and police officers committed misconduct at about the same rates in state court cases.
- In federal exonerations, prosecutors committed misconduct more than twice as often as police officers.
- In federal exonerations for white-collar crimes, prosecutors committed misconduct seven times as often as police.
Misidentification is known as one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction and the most common reason why African Americans, in particular, are wrongfully convicted.
- According to the Innocence Project, 69 percent of wrongful convictions involve eyewitness misidentification.
- According to the Innocence Project, 75 percent of exonerations based on DNA evidence involve eyewitness misidentification.
Eyewitness misidentification is one of the most powerful and convincing forms of testimony, in that it can emotionally sway a jury or judge of a defendant’s guilt. As William J. Brennan said, “There is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!’” But many factors also contribute to its unreliability, including suggestive methods used by the police and the fallibility of memory.
According to the Innocence Project:
- 34 percent of misidentification cases occurred during a live police lineup.
- 16 percent occurred during a show-up procedure, where the police presents a single suspect directly to the victim.
- Up to 52 percent of misidentifications were a result of a photo array – when a victim was shown a binder of photographs of the suspects.
- 7 percent of misidentifications involved mugshot books.
- 5 percent of misidentification occurred during a one-on-one photo showing.
- 27 percent of false identifications involved composite sketches.
- 11 percent of misidentifications involved the witness not recognizing the defendant’s voice correctly.
One of the biggest contributors to eyewitness misidentification is the method the police officer uses to present the suspect to the witness. Often, a police officer may give off subtle and suggestive cues through pauses, hesitations, gestures, or smiles, that taint a witness’s perception and influences the witness to choose a particular suspect.
In his book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, Brandon Garrett investigates what went wrong in the first 250 wrongfully convicted cases to be exonerated by DNA testing. According to Garrett, in 27 percent of the trials involving eyewitness testimony, it was revealed that police had made suggestive remarks. He adds that the solution to suggestive methods is the double-blind procedure – where neither the officer nor the witness knows who the suspect is during the photo line-up. That quickly solves the problem of biases because the officer does not know who the suspect is himself, and therefore, is no place to influence the witness. Garrett also brings up that lineups shouldn’t be constructed to where the suspect stands out, and the witness must be told that the suspect may not be in the lineup. Repeatedly seeing someone in lineups or photos is detrimental, as it can cause a face to become more familiar and as a result, more likely to be chosen.
Research also shows that cross-racial misidentifications – when the witness and the defendant being identified are of different races – can be especially unreliable. People identify those of their own racial or ethnic group more accurately and easily and have more difficulty in identifying facial characteristics in other races.
- According to the Innocence Project, 42 percent of wrongful convictions involving misidentification are cross-racial bias misidentification.
Cross-racial bias is overwhelmingly seen in cases where the witness is Caucasian, identifying an African American defendant. In the book Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, which was also based on a wrongful conviction that resulted from an eyewitness misidentification, the victim, Jennifer Thompson picked Ronald Cotton out of everyone through a flawed photograph lineup. She was so sure about her identification until DNA evidence exonerated him eleven years later, and she found out, in disbelief, that she had misidentified the man who had raped her. The real perpetrator was found later and was significantly different in height.
- Half of the sexual assault cases with eyewitness misidentification involve a Caucasian woman and an African American male – who is ultimately exonerated.
- According to the Innocence Project, 84 percent of misidentification cases were by a surviving victim.
Eyewitness misidentification involving children:
Eyewitness accounts by children also add a layer of complication. While children are less likely than adults to set out to deceive anyone, they are more susceptible to suggestibility during interviews and more influenced by leading questions. Children, by nature, want to please adults with their answers – they will try their best to provide the answers that they believe their adult questioners want to hear. But are adult questioners taking this into consideration while communicating with child witnesses – or are they leaving room for misunderstandings to arise?
When younger children are repeatedly asked the same question, they may think it is because their answer is wrong – causing them to shift their stories, or contradict themselves. If they do not understand the question or don’t know the answer, they may be afraid to admit that and instead, make up an answer that they think will please the questioner. In addition, false childhood memories can easily be planted – and reversed – in children. Children can make reliable witnesses, but only if the adult questioning them understands the specific needs of a child witness and makes an effort to meet them. The manner in which the question is asked directly correlates to the child’s response and its validity.
Perjury or False Accusation
- According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 70 percent of wrongful convictions involve false accusations and perjury.
- False accusations or perjury are more common in homicide cases than non-homicide cases (76.3 percent and 64.2 percent, respectively).
- As mentioned earlier, perjury or false accusation is the most common contributing factor in almost half of all female wrongful convictions (125 out of 251).
False Confessions: Why would someone confess to a crime they did not commit?
Nearly half of all wrongful conviction cases related to false confessions involve individuals who are under the age of 21 years old and almost ten percent involve individuals who suffer from mental health issues or have a mental disability.
According to the Innocence Project:
- 29 percent of wrongful convictions involve false confessions.
- Out of those, almost half (49 percent) of the individuals who confessed to a crime they did not commit are ages 21 or younger.
- 31 percent of the false confessions are by individuals who are 18 or younger.
- 9 percent of false confessions are by individuals who suffer from mental health issues or have a mental disability.
- In 75 percent of exoneration cases involving false confessions, the real perpetrator is found later.
In his study, Garrett found that 16 percent (40 of the first 250 exonerees that resulted from DNA testing) confessed to a crime they did not commit and that more than half of the exonerees who falsely confessed were juveniles or mentally disabled. Juveniles and the mentally disabled are often intimidated into a confession by the officer, co-defendant, or accomplice. During interrogation, they are faster to agree to and accept what they are pressured into because they do not fully comprehend the procedure, or are fearful of the outcome. For example, Jerry Frank Townsend, who was mentally retarded, confessed to every crime he was ever asked about, and that included 20 murders. Jeffrey Deskovic, who was seventeen years old at the time, confessed even though he did not commit the crime: “Believing in the criminal justice system and being fearful for myself, I told them what they wanted to hear,” he said.
False confessions are often made during longer-lasting interrogations – sometimes up to days of enduring pressure from the police officers. During the interrogations, officers may disclose facts from the crime – details that only the criminal would be expected to know. Then, when the suspect confirms the details of the crime, it seems like there is no question of the presumption of his guilt. Everyone asks: How would someone know this unless he was the killer? But it isn’t that simple. As Garrett writes, false confessions are “carefully constructed during an interrogation and then reconstructed during any criminal trial that follows.” This way, it comes out more like a narrative and less like a “bare statement that ‘I did it.’”
There are also instances where the person fears he is in danger because police give the impression that the suspect is not permitted to leave until he confesses to the crime – even if he did not commit it. Cases with false confessions tend to be murder cases, and with no eyewitnesses involved, police have far more of an incentive to secure a confession.
A huge issue is that interrogations aren’t recorded, documented, reviewed, or regulated, and “as a result, shrouded in darkness.” We have no idea what really happened during the interrogation, but instead, we are entirely reliant on the officer’s word. Sometimes, an interrogation is recorded but only the selected portions that the police see as beneficial – like the confession or the reading of Miranda rights. That is highly misleading to the jury because they never see what happens leading to the confession, or following it. Circumstances contribute to the reliability surrounding a confession, and they should be taken into consideration during trial.
False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
While advances in DNA technology have revolutionized criminal investigations and can free innocent people, faulty, misinterpreted or junk forensic science has incarcerated innocent people and continues to.
- According to the National Registry of Exonerations, false or misleading forensic evidence contributed to 24 percent of wrongful convictions.
According to the Innocence Project:
- The first DNA exoneration occurred in 1989, and since then, there have been 375 DNA exonerations in total.
- The average age at the time of the wrongful conviction was 26.6 and the average age at the exoneration was 43.
- Exonerees served a total of 5,284 years – an average of 14 years per exoneree.
- 21 of 375 exonerees served time on death row and 44 of 375 pled guilty to crimes they did not commit.
- 268 DNA exonerees were compensated.
- Out of the 375 DNA exoneration cases, 165 actual perpetrators were later identified. Before these perpetrators were caught, they committed 154 additional violent crimes, including 83 sexual assaults, 36 murders, and 35 other violent crimes.
How Many People Have Been Exonerated From Death Row?
Since 1973, more than 8,700 people have been sentenced to death row in the U.S., but 200 of those individuals were innocent. According to the Death Penalty Information Center:
- At least four out of 100 prisoners on death row are likely to be innocent, but only two get exonerated before they are executed.
- A total of 200 people have been exonerated in 11 states while on death row.
- 21 out of the 375 DNA exonerees served time on death row.
Impact of Wrongful Conviction
Cost of Wrongful Convictions and Life-Changing Impact on Exonerees
When the wrong person is incarcerated, it costs everyone: the innocent person and their family, the victim and their family, and the nation. A person can be sent to prison dishearteningly fast – within two years – but exonerated only after years, even decades, of work. What’s worse is that the real perpetrator is still out there, free to commit crimes, while the innocent person is locked up, paying for a crime they had nothing to do with.
A wrongful conviction is also a terrible injustice to families, whose lives are forever impacted – and often destroyed – from this loss. If a person is wrongfully incarcerated, their children, spouses, significant others, parents, and friends lose love, care, financial support, company, and so much more. Their families lose any sense of normalcy at home and in their community and face the hopelessness of knowing their loved one isn’t a part of their lives. Families invest time, money, and resources traveling back and forth to visit their loved ones in prison, and fighting to help prove their innocence – often to no avail.
Even when a person is exonerated, no one can ever compensate them for the time they have lost with their loved ones, or to live a life that belonged to them. In that way, the real cost of wrongful convictions cannot ever truly be measured.
That said, the economic burden of incarcerating the wrong person is tremendous:
- The Prison Policy Initiative found that mass incarceration costs U.S. taxpayers, the state and federal government, and families over $182 billion every year – this includes the wrongfully convicted.
- According to some studies, the cost of foregone wages while people are incarcerated and the lifetime reduction in earnings after their release may amount to more than $300 billion every year.
- Those who are incarcerated also experience higher rates of divorce, but lower rates of marriage – reducing the U.S. economic growth by an estimated $26.7 billion and increasing America’s child welfare costs by an estimated 5.3 billion.
Compensation for Exonerees
Exonerees can receive compensation in three different ways:
- State Statutes: 35 states and the Federal government have passed laws to provide compensation for the wrongfully convicted. This still leaves 15 states without laws compensating men and women who have faced the injustice of a wrongful conviction. States with existing compensation laws also vary significantly in what they allow exonerees to pursue.
In 2018, Kansas passed one of the strongest laws in the nation providing compensation for exonerees. The new law provides
- $65,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment plus $25,000 per year wrongfully served on parole, probation, or the sex offender registry
- Social services including long-term and short-term housing and tuition assistance, counseling, participation in the state health care program, and financial literacy training
- A certificate of innocence, and expungement of the wrongful conviction from state and federal records to help exonerees clear their names
- Protections for taxpayers
In comparison, New Jersey law prohibits exonerees who had pleaded guilty to a crime to secure compensation. New York lacks sufficient social services and immediate subsistence funds for the wrongfully convicted.
- Lawsuits: In certain situations, exonerees can file a lawsuit in civil court against government officials or organizations that were responsible for their wrongful convictions due to misconduct.
- Private Bill: State legislatures can pass laws that grant compensation to specific individuals. However, this is the rarest form of compensation for exonerees.
- Innocence Network: The Innocence Network is a group of organizations dedicated to providing free legal and investigative services to help prove the innocence of those who have been wrongfully convicted, supporting the exonerated after they are free, and reforming the criminal justice system in the process. Find and reach out to your local Innocence Project here.
- Healing Justice | Addressing the harm caused by wrongful convictions.: Healing Justice is a national nonprofit organization started by victim Jennifer Thompson, that provides post-trial support and recovery to crime victims, survivors, and their families, as well as post-prison support and recovery to returning citizens and their families in cases where innocence has been proven.
After Innocence: After Innocence provides re-entry assistance for those who were wrongfully convicted, and advocates for laws that help bring exonerees meaningful compensation and effective re-entry support.