Imagine Having a Decade of Your Life Erased. It Happened to 161 People Exonerated from Prison in 2021.

A new report shows wrongfully convicted people serving 1,849 years behind bars across the United States before being released last year.


Wrongfully imprisoned persons lost a total of 1,849 years of their lives before being cleared in 2021, according to the newly released annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, 161 people were exonerated for crimes ranging from drug dealing and possession all the way up to murder. People wrongfully convicted of murder made up nearly half of the exonerations, with 75 in all. An average exoneree served 11.5 years in prison before being cleared and freed.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Registry—a product of the law programs at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and the University of California, Irvine's Newkirk Center for Science and Society. Though the registry is only 10 years old, the exoneration records it uses to calculate total numbers and trends go back to 1989. Since 1989, the Registry has counted more than 3,061 exonerations. Taken together, those prisoners lost nearly 27,000 years of life before being exonerated.

As with the Registry's last annual report, official misconduct by prosecutors or police played a huge role in explaining how innocent people end up behind bars for years. Official misconduct played a role in 102 of last year's exonerations. In more than three-quarters of the murder cases that ultimately led to exonerations in 2021, misconduct contributed to the false conviction.

The report notes that the role misconduct plays in faulty convictions has increased in part due to increases in exonerations for drug-related cases and also as result of greater understanding by the public and the courts about bad police behavior:

A majority of those drug cases involved perjury or false accusation, mainly by police officers who framed innocent people. But the increase also represents increased awareness by courts of other kinds of official misconduct, such as forensic fraud and the failure by police and prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence.

Illinois ended up being the state with the most exonerations (38) because of this police corruption. The state is still finding innocent people framed by a group of crooked Chicago cops led by Sgt. Ronald Watts. In 2017, Illinois had its first "mass exoneration" of 15 men who had been falsely convicted based on misconduct by Watts, who was involved in hundreds of convictions that are still being examined. In 2021, another 14 people convicted by the tainted conduct of Watts and his officers were exonerated.

In 2021, the Registry takes note of another mass exoneration in New York City. There, allegations of misconduct and perjury charges against former New York Police Officer Joseph Franco led to prosecutors either dropping charges or vacating the convictions of more than 450 defendants in 2021 and 2022. Those numbers aren't included in the report's 2021 stats, but it's an example of how greater understanding of police misconduct is drawing attention to the horrible excesses and harms of the war on drugs.

The Franco cases also highlight the critical role prosecutors—when they actually care about ethics and innocence—can play in exonerations. The 2021 report notes that conviction integrity units in prosecutors' offices have participated in about 20 percent of all the exonerations in the Registry. They've become very important in getting courts to cooperate in efforts to get people out of prison when they turn out to be innocent. So when Virginia's new attorney general came into office in January and dumped the entire conviction integrity unit in one fell swoop, people were concerned that there would be less interest in releasing innocent prisoners. Attorney General Jason Miyares said that he's actually expanded the unit and now calls it the "Cold Cases, Actual Innocence and Special Investigations Unit."

But at the same time, Miyares has withdrawn support for a 78-page report by his predecessor, former Attorney General Mark Herring, that sought to clear Terrence Richardson. Richard was sentenced to life in prison for drug crimes and involuntary manslaughter. Though he was found not guilty by a federal jury of killing a police officer in 1998, a judge nevertheless used his involuntary manslaughter guilty plea to sentence him to life in prison.

Richardson's attorney has filed a writ of actual innocence with the court to try to get Richardson's manslaughter conviction tossed, and the unit under Herring had supported the effort. But after taking office, Miyares formally reversed the state's opinion on the matter and now argues that Richardson is not eligible because he pleaded guilty to the manslaughter.

It's an example of how prosecutors can get in the way of exonerations—using the complicated rules of the court to keep people behind bars even if there's evidence that they're innocent. An appeals court could decide in May if Richard can join the ranks of exonerees.

The Registry notes that unlike what we're seeing in Virginia, conviction integrity units are proving their worth elsewhere. In 2021, six units reported their first exonerations, including a newly created unit in Orleans Parish, Louisiana. That is a positive trend. It's tempting to look at all the years lost in these reports and despair, but more prosecutors are showing that they're willing to look backward and correct these mistakes.

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  1. Imagine having a year and a half erased from your life because you trespassed.

    1. That depends on whether you're a peon or a member of the upper class and whether it was a peon or a member of the upper class you trespassed against. Remember in America, all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

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  2. When it is proven that police and prosecutors intentionally put innocent people in prison, the police officers and prosecutors should serve the entire sentence in the same prison.

    1. I don't know if I would go that far, but at the very least, official misconduct that puts even *potentially* innocent people in that position, should be a serious felony.

      I don't know if anyone else recalls the Ryan Ferguson exoneration in Missouri from several years back, but that case was a perfect storm of police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, witness tampering, you name it. None of the officers involved were disciplined. The corrupt prosecutor is now a judge.

      1. Allow me to go further then. If it's proven that police and/or prosecutors knowingly put an innocent person in prison, I'd be fine with them serving double the sentence they stuck the poor innocent son of a bitch with. Fuck every last one of the scumbags in our criminal justice "system" who care more about conviction rates than actual justice.

        1. I'd go a step further and allow the victims of the corrupt cops and prosecutors to line the assholes up against the wall and then be the firing squad. Put it on tv. Let that be a lesson to cops and prosecutors who abuse their power.

        2. Hmmmm how would they kill kamala twice? She did falsify evidence to keep a guy on death row

      2. God damn. If Ferguson hasn't beaten the shit out of Erickson at this point he's a fucking saint. What an absolute retard.

        1. Erickson's still in jail. IMO He's a victim in this whole thing, too.

  3. It is very sad when a person is wrongfully convicted of a crime and, when discovered, it should be corrected with release, apology, and remuneration.
    The legal system is run by human beings and subject to all the failings being human entails. Of course if evidence was withheld or falsified those responsible should be convicted.

  4. As a Koch / Soros / Reason soft-on-crime #FreeTheCriminals and #EmptyThePrisons libertarian, I have an easy fix: overhaul the justice system so that the maximum sentence for any crime is 2 months.


    1. No exceptions? Not even for the J6 trespassers?

  5. Imagine being illegally jailed for a year without even charges.

  6. It's an example of how prosecutors can get in the way of exonerations—using the complicated rules of the court to keep people behind bars even if there's evidence that they're innocent.

    Since the objection seems to be that the involuntary manslaughter resulted in a life sentence in what sense is this person "innocent"? Furthermore there really isn't enough information to judge anything. We're trusting a summary by an institution touting its own horn.

    Notice that in this article every criticism by the National Registry is asserted verbatim as fact. This is common to establishment libertarians. They seem to have identified their primary enemies using libertarian principles - commonly law enforcement - but then immediately jettisoned the professional skepticism that should be applied to any and all institutions including potential allies against these targets.

    This is why we end up with stupid "these institutions good, these institutions bad" stories. They need to learn to scrutinize everyone.

    1. We're trusting a summary by an institution touting its own horn.

      And being reported by a magazine notorious for describing armed felons as unarmed and calling for leniency for serial rapists of the infirm and mothers who killed their own children.

  7. It's an interesting exercise in a practical examination of Blackstone's Ratio to use the numbers suggested here.
    While the statistics are given in a way that is difficult to directly apply, and one can in no way be sure how many of the exonerations represent a person being innocent or, more likely whether they are at all representative of the true number, in the absence of any better data, they may well give a rough rule of thumb about the rates of incorrect convictions in the US.
    If the 50% exonerations in the past year that was for murder convictions can be applied to the total number of exonerations (~3000 according to the registry), then we might consider that there were 1500 wrongful murder convictions in the recent past. Of course, the retrospective nature of the data and the glacial pace of the justice system means that the typical exonerated murder happened 11.5 years ago (average sentence) plus as much as a decade or two for the process to work out.
    So perhaps we can apply the 1500 wrongful convictions to the total number of murder convictions since 1989 (when the registry and most other crime statistics start). On average, there were 12-17K murders in the US from 1989 until 2019, ~15K/yr. Murder has had a conviction rate of about 50% recently. So, considering the 30 years from 1989 to 2019, that's a total of 450K murders and about 225K murder convictions.
    If we make a charitable assumption that only one-third or so of the actual wrongful convictions were found by those who searched for them, this shows a 1% wrongful conviction rate; of 4500 people. But during the same period, there were about 225K unsolved murders.
    If each murder was committed by a unique person, that suggests that for every wrongly convicted person, 50 guilty people went free. If a typical murderer committed two murders on average then it would be 25 guilty people.
    Both of these numbers compare well with the classic Blackstone's formulation of English common law: "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer".
    Some in history have suggested that the ten should be more like one hundred or even one thousand but such people have rarely made it clear who exactly, this would be better for.

  8. Regarding “police misconduct”, mentioned in the above article, has the officer named been prosecuted? In not, why?

    Other cases might have involved prosecutorial misconduct. In such cases, has action been brought against wrongdoers. Again, if not, why?

    Incompetence of legal counsel is another possibility. What could be done there is certainly an interesting question. Seems, sad to note, that there are more questions than answers.,

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