The National Registry of Exonerations is beginning to garner editorials, and continuing to get focused attention.
"Hard truths about injustice," is the Dallas Morning News editorial.
Call it a graduate course on what can go wrong in the criminal justice system.
There are 891 case studies at present, and climbing.
That’s the number of individual cases listed so far in a new national project on cataloging and dissecting proven miscarriages of justice.
Called the National Registry of Exonerations, the project aims to build the first comprehensive listing of wrongful convictions in America so the public and professionals can learn the hard lesson of failure, then build a better system.
As with a similar, DNA-centered exoneration database maintained by the Innocence Project of New York, this one figures to be a good teacher. And Texas once again has an embarrassingly prominent presence.
So be it. This state needs to have its dirty laundry laid out as often as possible if that’s what it takes to overcome skepticism that things have been just fine the way they are inside Texas’ halls of justice. We know that’s not the case.
"A new National Registry on Exonerations casts doubt on the accuracy of our criminal justice system," is the title of a Birmingham News editorial.
How many people wrongfully convicted of a crime are we willing to accept? Especially those who are sentenced to Death Row?
A report released Monday by the National Registry on Exonerations raises those questions and more. The registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, profiles 873 exonerations from January 1989 through February 2012. The report discusses including at least 1,170 other defendants whose convictions were dismissed after more than a dozen major police scandals. Most of those scandals involved the massive planting of drugs and guns on innocent defendants, which led to "group exonerations."
Of the 16 state exonerations in Alabama, six were men sentenced to death. It does not require a vivid imagination to wonder whether a wrongly convicted person awaits execution on Alabama's Death Row or, worse, whether the state has killed an innocent person in our names.
If someone goes to prison for a crime he or she did not commit, it is an injustice. That is especially true in capital murder cases, where a life is at stake. We would like to have as much confidence in Alabama's criminal justice system as Strange professes, but the report on the national registry casts enough doubt to cause grave concern.
The Week magazine bundles, "25 years of wrongful convictions: By the numbers."
891 - Specific wrongful conviction cases detailed in the National Registry of Exonerations
93 - Percent of the exonerated convicts who are men
50 - Percent who are black
10.7 - Average time, in years, from conviction to exoneration
10,000 - Combined time, in years, the 891 exonerated prisoners spent behind bars
2.3 million - People incarcerated in the U.S.
1,170 - Convicted defendants cleared in 13 "group exonerations" since 1995, following large police-corruption scandals, usually involving planted drugs or guns
416 - People exonerated of wrongful homicide convictions
UMichigan Law prof Sam Gross, co-founder of the Registry, is interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered, "Exoneration List Shows Patterns In False Convictions." It's conducted by NPR's Audie Cornish.
And, to start, Professor Gross, this registry contains information about, I guess, 2,000 exonerations since 1989, but do you know if that's really a comprehensive list?
SAMUEL GROSS: No, it's not. It's incomplete in two senses. It doesn't include all the exonerations that occurred. It includes those we've been able to get information on. And, second, and really more important, even if we could get information on all the exonerations that have occurred in the United States in the past 20-some years, that would only be a small fraction of the people who were innocent but convicted of serious crimes, despite their innocence.
CORNISH: So, of these 2,000 cases that you talk about, you have almost 900 cases, roughly, that you have the most detail about. And one thing I found interesting is that it wasn't DNA, necessarily, that exonerated all of these people.
GROSS: That's right. If you ask somebody on the street about exonerations, the next word out of their mouth will almost certainly be DNA and that's because DNA exonerations, which started in 1989, have gotten a lot of attention and for good reason. They've taught us a lot about the criminal justice system and they provide a type of scientific evidence of innocence that is very powerful.
But DNA exonerations have always been a minority of the exonerations that occur and the more we learn about exonerations that don't get as much attention, the more non-DNA exonerations we find out about.
Exoneree Franky Carrillo and Sam Gross were guests on MSNBC Politics Nation with Al Sharpton. Carrillo spoke about his own experience with wrongful conviction and exonerations.
At Huffington Post David Protess posts, "Meet the Exonerated." He's president of the Chicago Innocence Project.
Other findings were more nuanced. Notably, exonerations were spread across 43 states, but were most prevalent by far in three states: Illinois, New York and Texas. These states together accounted for one-third of the country's exonerations. Cook County and Dallas County led the way with 114 exonerations between them.
But why? While the knee-jerk reaction is to shout "corruption," the reality is good news more than bad. As the researchers indicate, these areas have been at the forefront of the national innocence movement, with dedicated lawyers, investigators, journalists and even college students engaged in exposing wrongful convictions since the 1990s. In the last five years, the D.A. of Dallas County has remedied injustice in 19 cases, some in collaboration with the local innocence project.
It is reasonable to conclude that if the loosely affiliated public interest groups were to bring their model to populated counties like San Bernardino (Calif.), Fairfax (Va.) and Bergen (N.J.) -- none with an exoneration since 1989 -- the problem of wrongful convictions would suddenly surface.
Another relevant issue is the death penalty. Seven of the 10 states with the most exonerations also had among the highest death row populations. Although fewer than 0.1 percent of prisoners are sentenced to death, 12 percent of exonerees had been condemned. Once again, the death penalty has been a priority of the innocence movement, and many dramatic exonerations have helped to change the conversation about capital punishment in America.
Earlier coverage of the National Registry of Exonerations begins at the link.