February 3, 2016; ABC News (Associated Press)

Since 2011, the criminal justice system has seen a record number of exonerations every year, according to a new report released Wednesday by the National Registry of Exonerations. As NPQ reported then, 2014 had 125 exonerations. The year 2015 set a new historic record with 149 exonerations, each exoneree having served an average of 14.5 years.

The registry is a project initiated by the University of Michigan Law School in 2012 along with Northwestern Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. The registry documents exonerations dating back to 1989, when they were first tracked. Over twenty-six years of exonerations, the project so far has profiles for 1,730 cases.

As is true every year, the registry’s report is enormously helpful in understanding not only that exonerations are becoming increasingly prevalent, but what the trends from year to year can tell us about the impact of criminal reform. Here are some of the main takeaways from the 2015 report:

  • The majority of the exonerations were for violent crimes. Thirty-nine percent, or 58, of the defendants who were exonerated were originally convicted of homicides. Of those 58, five had been sentenced to death, nineteen were serving life sentences, and more than two-thirds were minorities. Ten percent of the exonerations, or 15 defendants, had been convicted for a sex crime.
  • Within the homicide exonerations, this year includes more cases involving false confessions and official misconduct than any other year. A record number, 27, falsely confessed to the crime for which they were convicted and eventually exonerated. Most were under the age of 18, suffered from a mental illness or had an intellectual disability, or both. This year also saw in 44 of the 58 homicide exonerations some kind of official misconduct, either through the police department or the prosecutor’s office. 82 percent of the cases involving false confessions involved misconduct by a government official.
  • In another record, this year also saw the most exonerations for drug possession, with 47 exonerees. Forty-two of those wrongfully convicted of that 47 were from the same county in Texas—Harris County—which includes Houston. Last year, there were 33 drug possession exonerations from Harris County.
  • The report also identifies other long-term trends in exonerations it has seen over the past several years.
    • While the number of DNA-based exonerations has stayed relatively the same over the years (18 in 2013, 22 in 2014, and 26 in 2015), the number of non-DNA exonerations has been rising sharply. These include cases in which official misconduct has been found, a witness recants their testimony, etc.
    • The state leading the pack with the most exonerations is Texas, which had 54 exonerations this year (compare to 39 exonerations in 2014 and 13 in 2013), followed by New York and Illinois.
  • Of the 149 exonerations, 75 occurred for cases where we now know a crime had not been committed. This one may be a head-scratcher for some, but we already know that many exonerees falsely confess under duress. Moreover, many also plead guilty, which has become more common in the past two years according to the report. Therefore, it’s not hard to believe that some would be sentenced for crimes that never actually happened, particularly when they believe going to trial would result in a harsher sentence.

Undoubtedly, advances in science and increased public awareness have contributed to the continued rise of exonerations. Of course, while these individuals were exonerated, the question remains how many are still in prison who haven’t been so lucky. As NPQ reported in the George Perrot case, the attention he has received so far was due largely on one individual who revived interest in his case decades after he was perhaps wrongfully convicted a second time.

“The thing that is most troubling to me about these cases is it’s clear that for every innocent defendant who is convicted and later exonerated, there are several others who are convicted who are not exonerated because almost all the exonerations depend on a great extent on good fortune, on Lady Luck,” said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law professor and registry editor.—Shafaq Hasan