The University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law have joined forces to establish a database of major criminal exonerations around the country, initially finding about 2,000 of them, which only really begins to scratch the surface of the wrong convictions in our justice system.
There is no official record-keeping system for exonerations of convicted criminals in the country, so academics set one up. The new national registry, or database, painstakingly assembled by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, is the most complete list of exonerations ever compiled.
The database compiled and analyzed by the researchers contains information on 873 exonerations for which they have the most detailed evidence. The researchers are aware of nearly 1,200 other exonerations, for which they have less data.
They found that those 873 exonerated defendants spent a combined total of more than 10,000 years in prison, an average of more than 11 years each. Nine out of 10 of them are men and half are African-American.
Nearly half of the 873 exonerations were homicide cases, including 101 death sentences. Over one-third of the cases were sexual assaults.
DNA evidence led to exoneration in nearly one-third of the 416 homicides and in nearly two-thirds of the 305 sexual assaults.
Researchers estimate the total number of felony convictions in the United States is nearly a million a year.
U of M and Northwestern have led the way for law schools in researching wrongful convictions. But bear in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Remember that DNA evidence only exists in a small percentage of all cases, though it’s often the most serious cases (rape and murder). And remember that more than 95% of all criminal cases end in plea bargains, whether the person is guilty or not, for a variety of reasons that I’ve explained before. And remember that in all of those DNA exonerations, the innocent person was convicted on the basis of the same kind of mundane evidence that is used to convict hundreds of thousands of other people every year, including, far too often, faulty forensic evidence and suspect eyewitness identifications.