Innocence

U.S. Prisoners Have Lost a Combined 20,000 Years of Life to False Convictions

Annual exoneration report shows growth in amount of time served and increasing levels of official misconduct.

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In 2018 alone, wrongly convicted prisoners lost more than 1,600 years of life behind bars.

That's a new record, according to the annual report from The National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks all exonerations from 1989 onward. In 2018, 151 people were freed from serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. They had served 1,639 years altogether, an average of about 11 years per person.

Another record set last year is also worth our attention: More of these exonerations are happening in cases where misconduct by officials played a role. The report documents official misconduct in at least 107 exonerations last year. Official misconduct played a role in 80 percent of the 54 homicide cases in 2018 in which the person convicted was subsequently exonerated.

One of the big drivers of misconduct-fueled exonerations in 2018 was good old, corrupt Chicago. In 2017, Chicago saw its first-ever "mass exoneration" due to a corruption scandal involving Sgt. Ronald Watts. Watts was charged with leading his unit of officers in a massive protection racket where officers planted drugs on people who refused to pay extortion demands. In 2017, the convictions of 15 men were tossed out by prosecutors.

Further investigation into the extent of Watts' actions and those of his officers led to more exonerations in 2018. Another 31 defendants had their charges tossed out last year. And the report notes that even more exonerations have come this year—another 14 of them. The Watts cases have prompted the National Registry of Exonerations to rethink how it handles "group exonerations." Historically, this report has not included group exonerations in its statistics (the Watts exonerations from 2017 were not in its last report) because its definition calls for individualized re-examination of specific cases. After taking a closer look at the Watts cases, they've realized that even though these are group exonerations, the defendants are also seeing individualized reinvestigations. So they're going to start adding these exonerations to their statistics if they qualify.

Because of Chicago's police corruption, Illinois topped the list of states for exonerations last year, with 49. New York and Texas tied for second with 16 exonerations each, which shows just how much the behavior by Watts' crew shaped the overall statistics.

A few additional details from the latest report:

  • In 70 exonerations in 2018, the underlying crime never even happened. The Watts cases obviously fell into this category, but also worth noticing is that Vicente Benavides was freed from death row last April. He had been convicted 25 years ago for the rape, sodomy, and murder of a 21-month-old girl. The conviction was vacated after experts determined that the sexual assault did not happen and the injuries that killed the girl may have been the result of getting hit by a car.
  • In 19 exonerations, the defendant falsely confessed to the crime. All but two of these were murder confessions. Seven of these cases were in Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago, but didn't involve Watts. Instead, it was a completely different corrupt cop, Det. Reynaldo Guevara, whose misconduct in wringing false confessions out of defendants has let to 14 exonerations so far.
  • Not only did 2018 set a record for the amount of time served by those who were exonerated, it saw another milestone: The number of years served by incarcerated people who were subsequently exonerated surpassed 20,000. That works out to an average of almost nine years served in jail for each person who has been exonerated.
  • Fewer than half of people who have been exonerated received any sort of compensation from the state for the years of their life that they've lost. States and local governments that have provided compensation have paid out more than $2.2 billion to exonerated prisoners. The report is quick to remind us that this does not include the costs to taxpayers of having prosecuted and incarcerated these people in the first place.
  • Two of the longest-serving defendants in the history of the registry were exonerated in 2018. Richard Phillips served 45 years in Michigan for a murder conviction from 1972. Wilbert Jones served 44 years for a sexual assault conviction in Louisiana. Both were convicted due to sketchy testimony.

Check out the full report here. The National Registry of Exonerations is put together 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.

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17 responses to “U.S. Prisoners Have Lost a Combined 20,000 Years of Life to False Convictions

  1. Instead, it was a completely different corrupt cop, Det. Reynaldo Guevara, whose misconduct in wringing false confessions out of defendants has let to 14 exonerations so far.

    You don’t Che.

  2. U.S. Prisoners Have Lost a Combined 20,000 Years of Life to False Convictions

    20,000 years falsely accused, sure, but were the years distributed equally between men and women and how much more harsh were the womens’ years on them?

    1. We need to incarcerate more women to make it fair for the men.

  3. In the same interval unconvicted U.S. citizens have lost 200,000 years of their lives waiting in line for TSA inspection

  4. After 45 years in prison you are both unemployable and don’t qualify for Social Security due to a lack of work credits?

  5. One of the big drivers of misconduct-fueled exonerations in 2018 was good old, corrupt Chicago

    Is Jussie Smollett a “misconduct-fueled exoneration”?

  6. In 2018 alone, wrongly convicted prisoners lost more than 1,600 years of life behind bars.

    Given the size of the prison population, that’s really not bad at all.

  7. All statistics benefit from context. What are the total years of incarceration over this period? Is it a “record” simply due to population growth or as a ratio to population?

  8. They should seriously take so much from the offending departments to compensate these people. This is slavery.

    1. Agreed. Prosecutors should face individual liability, and jurisdictions should face corporate liability, for every wrongful conviction.

  9. 22,000 years?

    People on our diet plan have lost the combined weight equivalent of 16,000 elephants or 22 Jumbo jets. Join today.

  10. so bewildering it’s beyond appropriate comment.

  11. All I want to know is how many years have these wrongful convictions involving official misconduct cost the officials responsible for the misconduct? How many testicles, how many fingernails, how many ears and noses and eyeballs? Anybody willing to stick an innocent person behind bars just to make his conviction rate look good just lost their status as a human being as far as I’m concerned and there’s little I can think of that would make me say they’re being punished too harshly.

  12. Brilliant! I can’t wait to see the combined prison toll of people convicted of victimless crimes such as plant leaf products, tax resistance and having a single beer. Expungement now!

  13. “One of the big drivers of misconduct-fueled exonerations in 2018 was good old, corrupt Chicago.”

    Chicago has had Democratic mayors since 1932.

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    >>>>>>>>>> http://www.GeoSalary.com

  15. One of the basic tenets of fearmongering is to find a scary headline number. But fail to answer the obvious followup question. What % of combined years of prison life is that? Seems like a drop in the bucket since they put no time frame on it. Any system makes errors – even airlines and nuclear plants which have the lowest rates for errors/ opportunity for errors.

    There has been on average 2.08MM prisoners locked up over the last 20 years, which is 41.55MM prisoner person years. Even if this 20,000 was just over 20 years (it is not according to the examples cited), it would be a .048% error rate or 99.95% correct incarceration rate. If we went back 45 years it would be much less.

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