Our criminal justice system is meant to protect defendants’ rights. Many of our constitutional amendments were specifically written to guarantee certain rights for criminal defendants, including the right to due process of law, to have competent counsel, to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, to confront the evidence and witnesses against you and more.
When someone innocent is convicted, it means our system has failed. When large numbers of people are falsely convicted, it means our system is failing.
That’s why the National Registry of Exonerations is so important. The registry, run by universities, tracks wrongful convictions involving completely innocent people that date back to 1989. It also offers an analysis of what factors contributed to the wrongful convictions in the first place.
According to the registry’s annual report, in 2018, 151 people were found completely innocent of crimes they had been convicted of committing. In 70 of those cases, the underlying crime never even occurred — including one that resulted in a death sentence.
The 151 people who were exonerated last year spent a total of 1,639 years behind bars. And, the total number of years lost by exonerees since 1989 surpassed 20,000 last year.
The leading cause of false convictions was official misconduct
According to an analysis by Reason.com, police and prosecutorial misconduct played a documented role in at least 107 of the 151 exonerations last year.
One major contributor to that tally was a single corrupt police unit in Chicago. In 2017, 15 drug cases were tossed out after it was discovered that officers had planted drugs on defendants who refused their extortion demands. Another 31 defendants were exonerated last year, and at least 14 have been exonerated this year so far.
Other highlights from the report
In 19 cases, the defendants pled guilty to their charges even though they were actually innocent. That’s not as surprising as you might think. Criminal defendants face immense pressure to plead guilty, often facing much harsher charges if they insist on trial. Moreover, some police officers know how to get innocent people to plead guilty. One Chicago officer has become famous for doing so — and 14 of his defendants have been exonerated so far.
A man named Vicente Benavides was exonerated after being sentenced to death. After he had served 25 years, experts determined that he did not sexually assault and murder a 21-month-old girl. Her injuries were more likely caused by a car accident.
Fewer than half of exonerees receive any compensation for their wrongful convictions.
The fact that so many people have been wrongfully convicted in the U.S. underscores the importance of hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend you.