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Registry: Majority of 2017 exonerations involved misconduct

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP July 2, 2018

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 139 people were exonerated in 2017. These people had been convicted of criminal offenses and were then proven to be innocent of those offenses. Shockingly, 84 of the 139 wrongful convictions were the result of official misconduct. In 66 cases, no actual crime had been committed. Overall, these people lost 1,478 years of freedom.

The Registry has just released some reports detailing the causes and results of the exonerations historically and in 2017 specifically. The information in these reports can give us insight into those situations where the criminal justice system gets things wrong — which is far, far too often.

Who exonerates people?

A majority of the exonerations — 80 — were the result of efforts by “professional exonerators,” or people whose job it is to uncover and fight wrongful convictions. These are primarily lawyers from “conviction integrity units” at prosecutors’ offices and attorneys from nonprofits such as the Innocence Project.

“It makes you really wonder what would the feelings on exoneration be, and how many would we see, if there were more of these organizations,” said a spokesperson for the Registry.

There are approximately 33 conviction integrity units in the U.S. and some 52 private exoneration nonprofits or law firms.

Harris County, Texas, finds a lot of wrongful convictions

The conviction integrity unit for Houston’s Harris County has spent the last several years examining questionable drug possession convictions. As a result, it exonerated around 100 defendants since 2015. This activity has driven up the number of exonerations nationwide, but the project is winding down. Only 10 defendants were exonerated last year.

Police, prosecutorial misconduct tied to 84 exonerations

The wrongful convictions of at least 84 of 2017’s exonerees were the result of official misconduct. That included activity such as police officers threatening witnesses, forensic analysts falsifying test results, and prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense. (Prosecutors are constitutionally required to hand over any evidence tending to support the defendant’s case.)

66 people exonerated of crimes that didn’t occur

Over a dozen people were falsely convicted of drug possession when no drugs were actually present. Eleven were falsely convicted of child sex abuse, and nine were convicted of murder even though no murder had occurred. For example, Rodricus Crawford was sent to death row after his infant son died. It has now been shown that the boy probably died of a medical condition called sepsis.

Boulder Conviction Integrity Unit

As of earlier this year, the Boulder District Attorney’s Office is partnering with the Boulder public defender’s office, the defense bar and the University of Colorado’s Korey Wise Innocence Project to create a conviction integrity unit that will examine cases in which defendants claim they were wrongfully convicted.

The criminal justice system does fail. If you are accused of a crime, you need to protect your rights and fight for your freedom. You need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side in order to avoid a conviction.