Discovery of Police Corruption Freed Dozens of Imprisoned Americans in 2017

Government misconduct a big driver of exonerations last year.


Leaving prison
Tom Ricciardi /

In 2017, 84 Americans were freed from prison after revelations of government misconduct helped prove them innocent. That sets a record, according to an annual report on exonerations in America.

It's actually only part of the picture. An additional 96 defendants in Chicago and Baltimore were released last year in "group exonerations" as a result of two very high-profile police corruption cases.

The details are part of the National Registry of Exonerations' annual report, a project by the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law. All in all, 139 exonerations were added to their registry for 2017, a drop from 171 in 2016. Though the total number of exonerations came down, a record number of people were exonerated due to official misconduct, mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, and perjury or false accusations.

There has been a significant decline in exoneration for drug crimes—just 16 this year—and that's because a backlog of cases from Harris County, Texas, has finally been cleared. In Harris County, the district attorney's office discovered hundreds of cases where defendants pleaded guilty to drug possession but subsequent crime lab tests discovered no actual illegal substances in the drugs. The county has been working since 2014 to go through all these cases and free people imprisoned for substances that turned out to not be illegal.

These stats do not include the group exonerations in Chicago and Baltimore, because the National Registry treats them separately from targeted exonerations of individuals who have had to prove their innocence from behind bars. Around 1,800 people were freed in such group exonerations from 1989 to 2017; the number of targeted exonerations in that period is 2,161.

Some other interesting stats:

  • Defendants who were exonerated in 2017 served an average of 10.6 years in prison before being freed, adding up to a total of 1,478 total years of life lost.
  • Ledura Watkins, 61, was convicted of murder in 1976 in Detroit. After serving 41 years in prison, he was exonerated and released in June after details came out about faulty forensic evidence and police and prosecutor misconduct. His case represents the longest sentence served by anybody on the registry.
  • The registry keeps tabs of several different types of official misconduct that lead to innocent people being imprisoned. Among the behaviors that led to this record-setting year, the most common form was concealing evidence.
  • Of the 51 cases where a person convicted of homicide was subsequently exonerated in 2017, 43 involved official misconduct in some fashion. That's 84 percent.
  • There were 29 exonerations involving false confessions in 2017, another record. Almost half the cases took place in the Chicago area, many involving a Chicago detective accused of abusing suspects during interrogations. Eleven exonerations were a result of false confessions connected to that one detective.
  • In 66 exonerations—almost half the total—the underlying crime didn't even happen. Sixteen of these were drug possession cases, 11 were child sex abuse cases, and nine were murder cases. One severe case in Louisiana saw Rodricus Crawford convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after his infant boy was found dead in his home in 2012. Police and prosecutors insisted Crawford had killed the boy, but the conviction was reversed when the defense was able to provide enough evidence that the boy died of bronchopneumonia.
  • Feeding into the problem of people being convicted of crimes that didn't even happen, there were a record 87 exonerations connected to witnesses who perjured themselves or otherwise falsely accused the defendant. In 40 cases, a defendant was accused and convicted of a crime that didn't even take place.

The Registry of Exonerations' reporting only goes back to 1989. But this week they've also unveiled a database of 369 exonerations that they have been able to track down that took place prior to 1989, going all the way back to 1920. Exonerations were much less frequent, but the circumstances around them were similar to what we see today—faulty eyewitnesses, bad forensics science, official misconduct.

"Fifty or a hundred years ago, an innocent defendant in prison had no one to turn to," said Michigan State University law professor Barbara O'Brien, editor of the registry, in a press release. "The main reason we're seeing more exonerations now is that they can seek help from innocence organizations and prosecutors' offices who are committed to fixing wrongful convictions and are increasingly working together."

The report notes that organizations devoted to helping people prove their innocence participated in 54 exonerations last year—another record. On Monday, I moderated a panel at South by Southwest in Austin that included Rebecca Brown, policy director of the Innocence Project. Brown discussed reforms that can help keep innocent people from getting caught up in the justice system, and we talked about what can be done to help those who have been exonerated. An audio recording of the panel can be heard here.

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  1. I’m opposed to imprisoning non-violent people generally, but I would lose no sleep over a law that required cops and prosecutors whose official misconduct led to wrongful imprisonment to serve out the remainder of the original sentence.

    1. Personally, I think police or politicians should be punished more harshly for violating the law than “civilians” as they like to call us nowadays. If a cop lies for a conviction, he should serve double the term the defendant would have. If a cop/politician shoots somebody wrongfully, embezzles money, etc they should get double the sentence a normal person would. They are supposed to be the people we put our faith in (not that anybody but suckers does), so if they break that faith they should pay dearly. It probably wouldn’t deter much, but it would be justice served whenever it did get applied.

    2. ALL of the original sentence.


  2. After serving 41 years in prison, he was exonerated and released in June

    Words fail. And then you realize that there are certainly innocent people that are still locked up for even longer.

    1. Can we trust that no one has been wrongfully executed? I doubt it.

      1. No way. I can name three, arguably four in Texas alone that were executed and were innocent:

        Carlos de Luna
        Rueben Cantu
        David Spence

        And the arguable one is the famous Willingham case, but the initial investigation there was so butchered that who the hell knows.

        That’s just Texas, and my standards for judging someone innocent are pretty tight, so God only knows how big the real number is nationwide.

        1. In the grans scheme of thongs, the number is pretty low.

          1. In the grand scheme of things, any number of innocent citizens killed by the state as a result of incompetence/misbehavior of the police and prosecutors that is greater than zero is too high.

            1. Yeah, but it is inevitable. Any legal system that REALLY was so loose and light on defendants that not one single innocent person could ever be convicted, would be so easy to avoid conviction you might as well not even have any laws anymore at all.

              It’s just one of those things about life that’s fucked. It will never be perfect, so you just shoot for doing the best you can within reason.

              1. STANDING OVATION.

              2. To cops and prosecutors doing the best they can means getting a conviction by whatever means they have at their disposal. It has nothing to do with justice.

              3. The concept is similar to having rules of engagement for cops that are so strict to guartantee that there would be no wrongful police shootings.

      2. Other than getting out in a reasonable period of time, I would probably rather be executed than live for 50 years in a prison… Just sayin’.

      3. Some years ago evidence revealed that several innocent people had recently been executed in Illinois. Our governor at the time George Ryan (who currently resides in a federal prison for unrelated reasons) a conservative Republican, used his executive power to place a moratorium of executions. The subsequent screaming, weeping and gnashing of teeth on both sides of the aisle was a wonder to behold. Apparently a significant portion of the population just can’t be content unless the state is injecting somebody somewhere with lethal drugs. Guilty? Innocent? Meh.

  3. The number of innocent people making confessions guilty pleas tends to undermine faith in the most common method of resolving criminal charges.

    1. I simply do not get why anybody would ever plead guilty when they weren’t. If a cop were threatening me, or beating me, I’d just take it and tell them to fuck themselves. Then make sure to get pictures of the wounds to prove my story!

      Frankly, I bet many of those situations were where people WERE guilty, and knew it… So they said as much, only to discover the cops didn’t really have the evidence to PROOVE they were guilty in court. So then they claimed they were innocent and forced to confess.

      I know some sketchy folks from high school who got off on shit they were arrested for because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it. Our criminal justice system is fucked, but if you have a moderately honest prosecutor, it’s not completely fucked. We all know guilty people get off ALL THE TIME. Probably far more often than innocent people get found guilty. But prosecutors or cops who are willing to outright lie or fabricate evidence are hard to get around…

      1. “if you have a moderately honest prosecutor”

        I think I found the weakness in your argument.

        And a system capable of locking up the innocent would also be capable of releasing the guilty.

      2. Fatigue makes cowards of the bravest of men.

      3. The vast majority of people in prison got there through plea bargains and by definition are not guilty of the crime they were convicted of. They may be guilty of a crime or they not be guilty of anything. If the cops and prosecutors decide they want your ass, unless you’ve got pretty deep pockets, you’ll be prosecuted and defended by people who get their paycheck from the same place. Public defenders rarely have the time, budget, wherewithal or desire to present the kind of defense required in a jury trial so they mostly negotiate plea deals.If they actually do the job their paid to do, they risk pissing off the prosecutors and judges they have to work with. I have a friend who worked as a public defender who became completely disillusioned with the whole scam and went into private practice because he thought he might actually be able to do the work he had trained for. So your high school buddies got off because the state had no evidence. Good for them. That’s exactly how the system is supposed to work.

        1. “”if you have a moderately honest prosecutor”

          I think I found the weakness in your argument.”

          They do kind of exist. I got in trouble in high school for underage drinking and related things… The prosecutor was, ya know, a dick. But he was honest. He didn’t try to make up charges or evidence. He actually even went somewhat light on me as far as charges for things that shouldn’t be illegal go!

          I also knew others who got relatively fair treatment out of him. It was a small town mind you, so everybody either knew somebody directly, or was like 1 person away from a connection. So that’s probably part of why he was decent.

          So just saying the do exist. Now is there an honest prosecutor in Chicago??? Maybe not!

  4. “On Monday, I moderated a panel at South by Southwest in Austin that included Rebecca Brown, policy director of the Innocence Project. Brown discussed reforms that can help keep innocent people from getting caught up in the justice system, and he talked about what can be done to help those who have been exonerated. ”

    Rebecca Brown is a he?

    1. You got a problem with that, transphobe?

      1. Shouldn’t “he” have picked a more manly name after transitioning??? I hear Lance is pretty popular. LOL

  5. It is insane that cops and prosecutors can knowingly lie and falsify evidence and that there is no criminal charges for them. I don’t know how any person could believe any word spoken by cops or da’s in this day and age.

    1. It is insane that no one tesorted to vigilantism in retaliation.

      1. Sad thing is when people do they usually wind up in jail/prison.

        1. But what if they refuse to go to jail or prison?

    2. I think most of them are more or less honest most of the time… But there are surely enough bad seeds out there to make you always question them.

      I definitely think ones who are found to have committed such acts should be punished VERY harshly. It’s a breech of the public trust, and should not be treated lightly.

      1. Cops purjure themselves every day in courtrooms all over the country. It’s part of the job description. It’s the grease that keeps the extortion/conviction machine running. Everybody involved knows they’re doing it. It’s not just a few bad seeds. It’s how the system works.

        1. ESPECIALLY in the CORRUP Federal system. THEY are even allowed to use ‘HEARSAY’ evidence AGAINST citizens they “TARGET”. THEY can REWARD people to tell outright Lies under oath.

        2. Dude, I’ve been arrested before for stupid shit when I was a teenager. I know cops can be dicks. I had them pull some shit on me, like put my cuffs on too tight to be assholes. Ditto with friends.

          But there were also some pretty damn decent ones. Some of the guys I went to school with are pigs now. MAYBE they’ve pulled a full 180 since school, but I’d imagine they’re still semi decent people like they were then.

          Being corrupt isn’t UNcommon, but it’s not 100% of them either. It probably varies a lot by the area. I’m sure a majority of big city cops are dicks, and in other places probably the reverse.

  6. I’ll never see it in my lifetime, but I’d sure like to see:

    *All forms of immunity for cops, prosecutors and judges is gone.

    *Implied consent is gone

    *Jury nullification is in full force for all criminal and civil cases.

    1. A judge, by definition MUST have immunity – for their judicial functions. When a judge makes a decision over some case or controversy, one of the parties will suffer some sort of damage from the judge’s decision and the judge must have some kind of immunity or else every case would result in a lawsuit against the judge from the party that lost the motion/case/etc. Under current law, a judges has NO immunity if he lacks subject matter jurisdiction, a situation, IMHO, that is a lot more common than TPTB would care to admit.

      A judge also has no immunity for any acts done in his administrative capacity – any thing done without at least two parties in contest against each other.

      The theory of why prosecutors need immunity, is that it is their job to deprive guilty people of the liberty/property, and they would be sued without fail for every case, although this has been stretched beyond the breaking point and gotten so far out of hand that you could count on one hand the number of prosecutors that went to jail/fined/disbarred for criminal misconduct.

      Cops, of course need and should have ZERO immunity. The exclusionary rule has had zero effect on police misconduct, as the cops still have no skin in the game, i.e., they have nothing to lose (personally) if they violate rights. Things worked much better when, rather than lose the case, they lost their stuff.

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