Innocence

2014 Was Another Banner Year for Letting Innocent People Out of Jail

Last year 125 people were freed from prison due to innocence, including six on death row.

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Until the next unlucky roll of the dice…
Parker Brothers

The National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School has put out its report for 2014, and once again, America is breaking new ground in letting innocent people out of prisons. Last year, 125 people were freed from prison. This beats the 91 freed in both 2012 and 2013. The report notes, though, that one of the reasons the number is so much higher this year is due to 33 exonerations in drug cases in a single county, Harris County, in Texas.

Who does the registry credit for this increase? Prosecutors. No, really. The report notes a rise in exonerations due to the efforts of Conviction Integrity Units, which work within prosecutors' offices to identify and fix false convictions. Most of the exonerations mentioned in Harris County were a result of the work of a Conviction Integrity Unit. There were 10 exonerations in Brooklyn murder cases due to another unit.

Graph
The National Registry of Exonerations

Some other details:

  • Six death sentences were overturned and the prisoners exonerated in 2014. It was the highest number since 2009. Each of the prisoners had been on death row for at least 30 years.
  • DNA evidence is still not as significant a player in exonerating prisoners as folks might believe. DNA evidence played a role in only 22 cases in 2014. The percent of exonerations where DNA evidence contributed has been dropping steadily since 2005.
  • In nearly half of the cases that led to exonerations, it turned out no crime actually occurred at all. Such was the case with nearly all the drug convictions that were overturned. Wondering how that worked? The report looks at those exonerations from Harris County. It turns out the "drugs" police grabbed didn't actually have drugs in them. Police detected drugs in field tests, but subsequent lab tests cleared the substances. But the defendants had entered guilty pleas (plea deals), and those subsequent lab tests were considered of low priority and sometimes didn't happen for years, so they didn't know. The report notes that there were 40 additional case dismissals in Harris County after they fixed this system, but those don't count as "exonerations" under the report's methodology.
  • More than half of the exonerations came with the assistance and even the initiative of law enforcement agencies. The report notes, "Judging from known exonerations in 2014, the legal system is increasingly willing to act on innocence claims that have often been ignored: those without biological evidence or with no perpetrator who can be identified because in fact no crime was committed; cases with comparatively light sentences; and judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who accepted plea bargains to avoid pre-trial detention and the risk of harsher punishment after trial."

Read the full report here (pdf).

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  1. So, is the system broken, or just bent?

    Is there an inherent problem with the jury trial, or is it in the selection process?

    Is it the judges or clarity of law?

    The cynic in my says this was 125 out of how many convictions? Even if we double the number we can assume, statistically, the system works very well.

    however, the cost of incarceration of innocent people is an extremely high price to pay, no matter what the percentage.

    1. The system is overwhelmed more than anything. There are so many cases churning through that a lot of injustice gets done. Justice is in many ways a commodity like anything else. You only have so many courts and so much time. So the more cases you have, the less likely you are to do justice in any one case.

      This problem is I think another side effect of the drug war. We have totally overloaded our courts with drug cases such that they end up doing all kinds of injustice in all cases.

      1. well, nearly all drug cases are injustices in themselves.

        Still, if we’re 99% good (total numbers assumption with zero research), what would it take for that last 1%. Is that last 1% even possible?

        I don’t think you can blame 6 death penalty convictions on an overburdened system.

        1. I think you can. The system being overburdened creates a mentality among prosecutors to just move the case any way they can to get a conviction. Prosecutors stop learning how to investigate and try a case properly. They just know how to take short cuts. The over burdening of the justice system is what creates the mindset that causes the government to go after people it should have known were innocent.

          1. Prosecutors aren’t actually overburdened. They’re just lazy dumb lawyers with an ego complex. There’s a reason they’re earning a third of what private practice lawyers earn, and it’s not because they’re noble public servants. Most work 9-5 and have a nice public sector retirement and health insurance plan. They’re like public school teachers more than anything else.

            NOTE – the head DA in most jurisdictions is an elected position that pays pretty well, but the ADAs are the ones who do the actual work on a day-to-day basis.

    2. One innocent person serving time is too many. How can we as a society ever repay them for the lost time, the shame, their destroyed lives, etc.? They will always have their convictions following them around.

      Also, SIX were in line to be executed and had been stewing in jail for decades. That’s a serious miscarriage. Can you imagine knowing you’re innocent and waiting decades to be killed by the State? I’d go completely crazy.

      1. I can’t even imagine knowing i’m guilty and waiting decades to be killed by the state.

        1. At least if you’re guilty, a part of you could reason that you deserve the punishment.

      2. Blackstone’s formulation?.we’ve all heard it?”Better that 10 guilty?” should be at the forefront of every trial.

        And for the shallow and ignorant amongst us that would ask “What if your wife’s rapist goes free?”: Sorry, I’m still with Blackstone.

        1. Strictly speaking, by executing the innocent, you allow the guilty go free by definition, as the case gets closed at this point.

          1. Leave it to a riddle-speaking vampire to make a salient point.

            1. As a member of the undead community, I prefer Vampire-American.

    3. The cynic in my says this was 125 out of how many convictions? Even if we double the number we can assume, statistically, the system works very well.

      You honestly believe that this is it? Do you understand how difficult it is to appeal a conviction?

      1. Not to mention that it’s impossible to appeal a conviction where the issue is that the jury just applied the wrong burden of proof (which happens in pretty much all cases, based on the juror interviews I’ve seen).

      2. even if it’s 10 times that amount, since these were spread out, it’s still statistically insignificant in relation to the overall number of convictions.

        However, statistically insignificant is different from real world significance.

    4. you are ignoring the “got away” component. Just as we can assume that for every drug dealer caught at least a hundred didn’t, we can also assume that for every conviction overturned at least a hundred innocents were not overturned.
      From my reading, the accepted figure for innocent people in jail is somewhere between 8-12%, and I got those numbers from articles right here on Reason.
      Yes, the system is SERIOUSLY broken. The Constitution gives the right to a trial, yet less than 2% of cases get a trial, why? Most innocent people plea out, why?
      A big reason is that when a prosecutor comes after you, he has MANY resources to pursue you and, usually, a rubber stamp from judges. The usual defendant is lucky if he has a few thousand to defend himself and the jury automatically tends to believe the prosecutor, putting the burden of proof on the defendant.

      1. Very true. I’ve rep’d people I knew were innocent yet they had to plea because they simply didn’t have the funds for a proper defense. It’s like that scene in Brazil where the guard says “Don’t fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating.”

  2. 33 exonerations in drug cases in a single county, Harris County, in Texas.

    That sounds like a lot for one county, until you realize this is basically metro Houston with a population of @ 4mm.

    1. I believe it was related to just one corrupt investigator. But I’m too lazy to check…

      1. sounds likely enough for me to take your word for it.

  3. This is why smart prosecutors go for massive overcharging instead and avoid this sort of mess entirely.

    1. That’s actually what happened in Houston. People with peiors taking a misdemeanor plea to avoid a felony.

  4. Better 1000 innocents rot in prison than one child predator walk free.

    1. is a child predator this: http://cdn.fashionablygeek.com…..jpg?22a92a

      ?

    2. I wish you were one of the 1,000 innocents rotting in prison for that statement.

  5. I don’t think you can blame 6 death penalty convictions on an overburdened system.

    I’d go with lazy cops and politically ambitious prosecutors.

    1. Don’t forget borderline sham grand jury and trial jury systems.

  6. SOP in exonerations of people that had no prior criminal activity, ought to be an ATF form 4473 filled out and submitted.

    If a rejection takes place, that person has NOT been fully cleared, and should scream bloody murder until the application is approved.

  7. …which work within prosecutors’ offices to identify and fix false convictions.

    As long as the fixes come after the offending prosecutors are out of office?

  8. This is why I can in no way support capital punishment.

    1. Exactly. You can never “reform” capital punishment in a way to make it impossible for an innocent person to be put to death.

      Require multiple eye witnesses? Well, it’s been proven that eye witness testimony can be unreliable, corrupted or simply made up.

      Statistically solid DNA evidence? DNA evidence can be mishandled.

      Police absolutely sure? Police can be wrong.

      Video or other documentary evidence of the crime occurring? Even that can be unreliable or corrupted.

      The safest route is to simply keep people locked up for life. At least then, if it’s found a mistake was made, we can give them some kind of monetary compensation.

      1. DNA is a giant scam perpetrated on the justice system. In the vast majority of cases it is nowhere near as “definitive” as they would have you believe.

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  11. One wonders how drugs, could not be drugs. Maybe the kids bought talcum powder instead.

  12. i am in no way impressed by these numbers. including misdemeanors (which are likely to be less accurate than felonies due to the even lower than average trial rates) there are hundreds of thousands of criminal charges each year. 125 is less than a rounding error. Even if you had your head up ypur ass far enough to believe the “justice system” gets it right 99% of the time (HA!) we would still be looking at a few thousand more exoneratioms annually to reach parity. Praising prosecutors for our criminal justice system is so insulting to the intelligence of anyone paying attention to the US incarceration crisis i dont even have words for it.

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