The Netflix series Making a Murderer has gotten huge media and public attention for its portrayal of the story of Steve Avery, who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder, only to be later exonerated and then arrested again and convicted in 2007 for murder.
The National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan is pivoting off the fame of the documentary series to highlight its annual figures showing how many other prisoners are found innocent, Their numbers for 2015 were released today and they show a new high in numbers. In 2015, 149 people (that the registry has documented) were exonerated of their crimes. This is an increase of 10 over 2014's numbers, which were themselves a record (note that when I blogged 2014's numbers, we registry had them initially at 125. These may increase as more information makes it to the registry. It's possible then that more than 149 people were exonerated last year.)
Here's some important statistics from the registry's report:
Those exonerated in 2015 had served an average among them of more than 14 years in prison.
- The flat numbers are small, but we've seen a doubling in the number of exonerations since 2011.
- 58 of those exonerated had been convicted of homicide. Five had been sentenced to death.
- 47 of those exonerated had been convicted of drug possession.
- 27 of the exonerations were from convictions connected to false confessions, primarily in homicide cases. Often the defendants were minors or had mental illnesses and/or intellectual disabilities.
- 44 of the homicide exonerations involved discoveries of misconduct by officials
- 44 percent of the exonerations were of people who actually pleaded guilty to their crimes, a record high.
- A record 75 exoneration cases were in situations where it turned out no crime actually even occurred. In the most egregious example, three men were convicted of setting a fire in Brooklyn that killed a mother and her five children. It turned out the witness who testified that she saw them leaving the building at the time of the blaze later admitted lying and the evidence did not prove that the fire was actually intentionally set.
As with last year's numbers, the registry gives a lot of credit for the exonerations to Conviction Integrity Units (CIU), which work with prosecutors' offices to fix false convictions. CIUs were involved in 58 of the exonerations. As with last year, special mention is made of CIUs in Harris County, Texas, (where a huge chunk of the drug-possession exonerations came from) and Brooklyn, where they saw they above-mentioned homicide exonerations. Texas and New York dominated the other states in the total number of exonerations last year. It's not necessarily because these two states have the most false convictions, the registry is quick to explain, but because those CIUs are so actively involved in fixing them.
Ultimately that means these releases, while increasing in number, may represent just the tip of the iceberg. The registry concludes in its 2015 report that there's still an epidemic that remains mostly hidden:
In 2014 and 2015 there were 16 exonerations of defendants who were convicted of murder in Brooklyn from 1988 through 1994; other such cases are pending. This concentration of bad murder convictions from the years of the crack epidemic cannot be unique to Brooklyn. We have no doubt that similar numbers of cases would be found in other cities around the country if the prosecutors in charge devoted as many resources to finding them as the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.
In 2014 and 2015, 73 innocent defendants who pled guilty to low level drug crimes in Harris County, Texas, were exonerated by lab drug tests—and more to come. But how many innocent defendants have pled guilty in Harris County in cases for which no lab tests are available? And how many thousands more in the thousands of other counties across the country?
Read the full report, Exonerations in 2015, here.