The National Registry of Exonerations ("Registry") recently released its 2015 Exoneration Report, which contained a "record-breaking" number of exonerations, according to NBC News. The Registry is a project at the University of Michigan Law School and it "provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. "
According to the report, there were 149 total exonerations in 2015. There were exonerations in 29 states, as well as in the District of Columbia, Guam, and the federal courts. The majority of exonerations occurred in Texas (54), New York (17), and Illinois (13). The other 26 states had between 1 and 6 cases where defendants were exonerated. In addition, 3 federal defendants were exonerated, as were 2 defendants in the District of Columbia and 1 in Guam. The exonerated defendants served an average of 14.5 years behind bars.
58 (39%) of the 149 exonerations were for homicide cases. 54 of the homicide cases were murder cases. The other 4 cases were manslaughter cases. In 19 of the murder cases, the defendants had life sentences. 14 of these sentences were life without the possibility of parole, and 5 were life with the possibility of parole. 5 of the cases where the defendant was exonerated were death penalty cases.
Non-violent crimes were another category of exonerations, with 61 (41%) of defendants falling into this category. 47 of these cases were for drug possession. Other non-violent crimes included: gun possession, theft, and burglary. The other two categories that made up the rest of the exonerations were sexual assaults (10%) and other violent crimes such as robbery or arson (10%).
The Registry stated in the report that in a number of exoneration cases there was official misconduct, guilty pleas, and false confessions. There was found to be official misconduct in 65 cases, guilty pleas in 65 cases, and 27 false confessions. The report also found that in 75 cases, no crime had actually occurred. A majority of these no-crime cases were drug possession cases, but six were homicide cases. In 17% (26) of cases, DNA was responsible in whole or in part for an exoneration.
The Registry has reported 1,733 exonerations total from 1989 to January 27, 2016. Many of these have been in the past few years. According to a graph in the NBC News article titled "Prison Exonerations Over Time", there were 149 exonerations in 2015 and 139 in 2014. This is up significantly since the Registry began in 1989 when only 22 exonerations were recorded.
The report also reviews efforts by prosecutors to bring about justice. In 2015, 24 prosecutorial offices had Conviction Integrity Units (CIU) which "is a division of a prosecutorial office that works to prevent, identify and remedy false convictions." Some units are highly effective, such as the one in Harris County, Texas. 42 out of the 51 exonerations in drugs cases in 2015 were CIU cases from this county. Others are not as active or are not active at all.
With the national spotlight currently on the criminal justice system, it is clear that the system is far from perfect. It needs many improvements in many areas from police practices to prosecution policies. Hopefully, with increased attention on things like wrongful convictions, prosecutors and police officers alike will make more of an effort to make sure the person they are arresting and putting on trial is truly responsible for the crime.