New report from National Registry of Exonerations: 139 wrongfully convicted individuals exonerated in 2017

On March 14, 2018, the National Registry of Exonerations released its 2017 Exonerations Report. The 22-page document details the contributing factors behind last year’s 139 exonerations and offers a view into the systemic corruption and blunders behind wrongful convictions across the United States. The report also shows an upward trend in exoneration efforts and corruption prevention.

Official misconduct was the most pervasive trait in wrongful conviction cases, occurring in over half of all exonerations and in 84% of murder exonerations. Official misconduct is defined in the report as “a wide range of behavior—from police officers threatening witnesses, to forensic analysts falsifying test results, to child welfare workers pressuring children to claim sexual abuse where none occurred”. The most common practice of misconduct is “police or prosecutors (or both) concealing exculpatory evidence.”

DNA testing is often lauded as the scientific cure-all for wrongful convictions but played a small role in new exonerations. Just 13% of exonerations in 2017 relied on genetic analysis.

Of the 98 violent crime exonerations in 2017, four men were freed from death row: Rodricus Crawford; Ralph Daniel Wright Jr.; Rickey Dale Newman; and Gabriel Solache.  In Crawford’s case, it was found that no crime had occurred. Mr. Crawford was accused of killing his infant son Roderius Crawford in Louisiana. It was later determined that Roderius suffered from bilateral bronchopneumonia, which caused septic shock.

Here are some of the report’s other findings:

  • No-Crime Cases. Sixty-six exonerations in 2017 involved cases in which no crime actually occurred, almost half the total. As with guilty-plea exonerations, the largest group of no-crime exonerations were drug possession cases (16/66), but 11 child sex abuse exonerations and nine murder exonerations were also no-crime cases.
  • Perjury or False Accusation: A record 87 exonerations included witnesses who committed perjury or falsely accused the defendant, including 37 murders, 14 cases of child sex abuse, seven sexual assaults, six weapons offenses, and four drug crimes. The remaining exonerations covered a range of offenses, including theft, traffic violations, perjury, and fraud. In 40 cases, the defendant was falsely accused of a crime that never occurred.
  • Group Exonerations. In addition to the 139 individual exonerations listed in the Registry itself, at least 96 convicted defendants in Chicago and Baltimore were exonerated in “group exonerations” that occurred after it was discovered that groups of police officers were systematically framing innocent defendants for drug crimes. At least thirty additional defendants have been exonerated in these two groups to date in 2018, and more are expected.

There was a sharp drop in the number of exonerations from 2016 to 2017. This is primarily due to Harris County reaching the tail-end of a three-year backlog of wrongful drug convictions involving faulty drug kits and coerced false confessions.

In spite of the dip, there is a long-term upward trend in exonerations. In 2017, there were 33 Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) in prosecutorial offices across the U.S., more than two times the number of CIUs in 2013. The National Registry of Exonerations expects the upward trend to continue as counties develop CIU departments and continue to collaborate with innocence organizations (IOs) to free the wrongfully convicted.

The report was also covered by The New York Times and The Texas Tribune.

Submitted by Annie Hamdani