Ledura Watkins spent more than 41 years in a Michigan prison before being cleared of a murder he did not commit. He was just one of 139 exonerations in 2017, according to a recent report.
Texas and Illinois led the nation with the most exonerations, 23 and 21 respectively, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. California had nine exonerations for that year. Most were handled by prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) and Innocence Organizations (IOs).
On April 17, a convict from San Quentin’s Death Row walked out of prison a free man, after spending 27 years in prison. Vicente Benavides was cleared of the death of an infant in 1991. His case will be included in next year’s report.
The report showed that 11 people exonerated were convicted in the 1980s and the remaining 127 were convicted from 1990 through 2017.
In the case of Watkins, he served the longest time by any wrongfully convicted person before exoneration, said the report.
“SNY [Sensitive Needs Yard] …comprises roughly half the California prison system,” according to Lody Lewn in the Prison University Project Spring 2018 Newsletter Volume 13, No.1
“The only physical evidence linking Watkins to the crime was a single hair found on the victim’s clothing that was said to have 15 points of similarity to Watkins’ hair,” said the report.
“64% of California’s jail population is awaiting trial or sentencing as of December 2016.” Most remain in pretrial custody because they cannot afford bail. Jail Profile Survey, http://www.bscc.ca.gov/
Watkins was exonerated following the disclosure of concealed laboratory and police reports, the recantation by a witness who received immunity from prosecution for his role in the murder, and evidence that the hair analysis was unreliable.
The key factors for Watkins’ exoneration were:
False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Perjury or False Accusation
“We know of official misconduct in 84 exonerations in 2017, a record number. Forty-three of those cases involved homicides,” said the report.
The most common misconduct documented by the report involved police or prosecutors concealing exculpatory evidence. Other misconduct ranged from falsified forensic test results, to witnesses threatened by police, to children pressured by welfare workers to claim sexual abuse.
Craig Coley spent nearly 38 years in California’s prison system before being exonerated through the help of the Ventura County Conviction Integrity Unit.
The unit conducted a reinvestigation of the case after the Simi Valley police chief came across articles criticizing the police department’s handling of Coley’s 1979 case.
The CIU investigators went back to the crime scene and determined that the eyewitness’ account of seeing Coley leaving the victim’s apartment was impossible, given her vantage point.
A pardon petition arguing for Coley’s innocence would be supported by Ventura County District Attorney and Simi Valley Police Chief, said the report.
“about 1 percent of the inmates in immigration detention nationwide are American citizens,” according to Jacqueline Stevens, a political scientist at Northwestern University. Reason Magazine December 2017 REASON.COM
“Conviction Integrity Units are a positive development, but they are not a panacea (cure-all),” said the report. “Prosecutors who take on the task of reviewing convictions won by their own colleagues and predecessors may find it difficult to be objective and thorough.”
Certain units have been criticized as mere window dressing or public relations ploys.
“In particular, innocent criminal defendants and concerned family members who seek exoneration are not likely to be able to present their cases to these CIUs unless they can afford to hire lawyers,” said the report.
There were 87 cases that included perjury or false accusation, which included witnesses who committed perjury or falsely accused the defendant.
Kristin Lobato was exonerated after scientific evidence showed that the victim was killed after Lobato had already left town.
Lobato was sentenced to 40 to 100 years for murder in Las Vegas in 2002, despite presenting alibi witnesses who placed her nearly 170 miles away at the time of the crime. She was convicted based on a medical expert’s testimony that the victim was killed at a time when Lobato was in Las Vegas.
Her conviction was set aside and she was released in December 2017.
Sixty-six of the exonerations were cases in which no crime actually occurred. Drug possession cases made up the largest group of no-crime exonerations, 16 out of the 66, but 11 child sex-abuse exonerations and nine murder exonerations were also no-crime cases. One 2017 exoneree in a no-crime case was sentenced to death. In these cases, a death was originally deemed a homicide, but on further review, the cause of death was found to be otherwise.
Innocence Organizations have been involved in 434 exonerations from 1989 through 2017. So far in 2018, they have been a part of 13 of 19 exonerations.
The report concluded that with the elections of reform-minded district attorneys and more CIUs being implemented, there could be more exonerations.
“If this trend continues or accelerates in the next few election cycles—and if the newly elected DAs follow in the footsteps of earlier reform prosecutors—we might just see a sea change in handling serious claims of innocence by convicted defendants across the country.”