In a record-breaking year for exonerations in the United States, law enforcement officials say, “We are getting better at avoiding wrongful convictions.”
“The recent increase in the number of exonerations initiated by law enforcement directly shows that police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction,” according to The National Registry of Exonerations: Exonerations in 2013 (NRE). “Police and prosecutors appear to be taking increasingly active roles in reinvestigating possible false convictions, and to be more responsive to claims of innocence from convicted defendants.”
“The pattern of exonerations in 2013 suggests that we are increasingly willing to consider and act on the types of innocence claims that are often ignored.”
Those persons exonerated “were convicted, on average, more than 12 years earlier; some more than 30 years earlier,” according to NRE. “…we are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago and … we are catching more of them.”
According to the Registry, there were 87 exonerations in 2013. From 1989 to Feb. 3, 2014, the report listed 1,304 exonerations.
From January 1989 through December, 92 percent of the 1,281 individual exonerations were men and eight percent women. “As a group, the defendants spent nearly 12,500 years in prison for crimes which they should not have been convicted – an average of 10 years each,” the report said.
The 10 states with the most exoneration in 2013 were Texas, Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan, Missouri, Connecticut, Georgia and Virginia.
In its report, the Registry expects these numbers will increase as additional exonerations occur after 2013. Prior to this record-breaking year, the next highest total of exonerations was in 2009 with 83 known exonerations.
“Police and prosecutors appear to be taking increasingly active roles in reinvestigating possible false convictions”
The majority of exonerations reported over this 25-year period were homicide and sexual assault cases. According to the report, in 2013 there were “40 murder exonerations – including one exoneration of a prisoner who had been sentenced to death– and 18 exonerations that involved rape or other sexual assault. Eight percent of known exonerations occurred in cases in which the defendants were sentenced to death.
“Death Row exonerations have averaged about three a year for the past decade, down from about six per year for the decade before that,” the Registry reported. “The number of Death Row exonerations will continue to drop if the death penalty continues to lose favor in the United States and death sentences become increasingly rare.”
“Most known exonerations still involve homicide or sexual assault or both, but that proportion is down from 81 percent of known exonerations on March 1, 2012, to 80 percent at the end of 2012 to 78 percent at the end of 2013,” it was reported.
The proportion of exonerations that do not involve rape or murder has also grown from 18 percent in 1989 through 1998 to 24 percent from 2009 through 2013. The report explained 29 exonerations (33 percent of the total) did not involve either of these extreme crimes of violence. This was a record number of exonerations in such cases and a comparatively high proportion of all exonerations. From 1989 through 2007, 66 percent of DNA exonerations were rape cases.
DNA cases have been the minority of exonerations in the United States. They accounted for a fifth of the total in 2013. The number of these cases “continued to decline slowly, as it has for most of the past decade, while the number of non-DNA exonerations rose sharply.”
The report also shows 27 of the 87 exonerations occurred when no crime was committed.
The reports revealed 47 percent of the homicides cases exonerated occurred from 1989-2013. During that same period, sexual assaults amounted to 31 percent of those cases exonerated.