Every year, the National Registry of Exonerations releases an annual report on all the exonerations that occurred that year. The report lists the total number of exonerations for that year and also provides details about those exonerations such as what crimes occurred and what caused the wrongful convictions. As of January 27, 2016, the Registry has recorded a total of 1,733 exonerations in the United States since 1989. Exonerations are now common, averaging at about 3 exonerations per week. The Registry released their exoneration report for 2015 on February 3, 2016, and the report shows that several records related to wrongful conviction were broken last year.
There were 149 exonerations in 2015, which is more than any other year. The previous record was 139 exonerations in 2014. Of the 149 exonerations last year, exonerees spent an average of 14.5 years in prison. The majority of exonerations were for violent crimes—39% were homicide and ten percent were adult and child sexual assault. The exonerations that were for non-violent crimes were mostly drug possession and distribution cases. The exonerations took place in 29 states and Washington, D.C, along with three exonerations in federal cases and one in Guam. Texas had the most number of exonerations with 54, followed by New York with 17 and Illinois with 13. Florida had the tenth highest number of exonerations in the country with three.
Another record was broken in regards to homicide cases, which were responsible for the largest number of exonerations last year—58 to be exact, which is more than any other year. These exonerations took place in 25 states and 54 were for murder and four were for manslaughter. The largest percentage of homicide exonerees were African American at 49%, followed by Caucasian at 32%, then Hispanic at 11%, and other at nine percent. Of the 58 total homicide exonerees, 55 were men and three were women, ranging in age from 14 to 54. Eight of them were under 18 years old, and 23 were under 20 years old. Homicide exonerees spent an average of 18 years in prison, and all together spent 696 years in prison. Five of them were sentenced to death, 14 received life without the possibility of parole, five received life with the possibility of parole, and the rest were sentenced to decades in prison.
Drug cases also broke a record, in which 47 people were exonerated for drug possession. Of those 47 exonerees, 42 of them had pled guilty in Harris County, Texas alone. The exonerees may have pled guilty for several reasons, such as because they thought the drugs found on them contained illegal substances even though they actually did not or because they had previous criminal records and could not afford to hire a decent attorney or go to trial even though they were innocent. Many times, people were arrested on the error of police officers that may have identified something as a drug when it actually was not; for example misidentifying over-the-counter medication as prescription pills. Errors can also occur when officers perform field tests that are used to identify controlled substances because these tests are often unreliable, sometimes even mistaking candy for drugs. Drug case exonerees received sentences ranging from community service to two years in jail.
Records were also set last year in regards to how wrongful convictions occurred in the first place. False confessions were responsible for a record 27 exonerations. Of those 27 exonerations, 22 were homicide cases in which most defendants were under the age of 18, mentally handicapped, or both. Among death sentences in the United States, the rate of false confessions is about four percent. Official misconduct was involved in a record total of 65 cases, and in three quarters of homicide cases. Guilty pleas were responsible in another record total of 65 cases. The majority, or 46, of guilty pleas were in drug cases, and a record number of eight were in homicide cases, which all involved false confessions.
Some exonerations occurred because it was found that no crimes actually occurred. No-crime cases were involved in a record number of 75 of 2015’s exonerations, 48 of which were drug cases, six of which were murder convictions—yet another record—and 14 of which were for other violent felonies.
DNA evidence was wholly or partially responsible for 26 exonerations—17% of the 149 total exonerations last year. Of all exonerations recorded by the Registry, DNA exonerations are involved in 24% of them.
2015 was also a big year for Conviction Integrity Units (CIU). These units are branches of prosecutorial offices that focus on preventing, identifying, and reversing wrongful convictions. CIUs were involved in 152 exonerations overall between 2003 and 2015, including a record-breaking number of 58 last year and one so far in 2016. Almost three quarters, or 109, of the 152 CIU exonerations occurred in 2014 and 2015. In addition, almost half took place in Harris County, Texas thanks to their CIU.
While exonerations may now be considered commonplace, the work to free the wrongfully convicted continues.