Wrongful Convictions in Record Setting Numbers

Millions of people have been incarcerated in the United States over the past quarter-century. Unfortunately, an alarming number of those people were wrongly convicted, and, in some cases, spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. The past few years have seen the discovery of wrongful convictions in record-setting numbers.


There are a number of reasons people are wrongfully convicted, however some statistics according to the Innocence Project include:

  • The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989.
  • Since 1989, more than 2000 exonerations for serious crimes have taken place—351 are DNA exonerees, while the remainder were exonerated based on an eyewitness recanting his or her testimony, or new evidence of innocence.
  • The average length of time those exonerated served in prison is 14 years, with a total of 4,788 years served by prisoners who were wrongfully convicted.
  • Among the 351 DNA exonerees, 38 pled guilty to a crime they did not commit, and 71 percent involved eyewitness misidentification.
  • Of those who confessed to a crime they did not commit, 35 percent were 18 or younger at the time of their arrest, and 52 percent were 21 or younger at the time of their arrest.
  • The average age of DNA exonerees at the time of the wrongful conviction was 26.5, and the average age at exoneration was 42.5.
  • About 17 percent of the wrongful convictions involved an informant.
  • Other causes of wrongful convictions include forensic misconduct and inadequate legal defense.
  • Of the 351 DNS exonerees, 217 were African American, 106 were Caucasian, 26 were Latino and 2 were Asian American.

In 1989, there were 22 people who were exonerated, while in 2015, that number was 149, in 2016 the number of exonereesid was 166, and as of October 13, 2017 there were 160 exonerees. When added all together, exonerated prisoners have served a staggering 18,350 years of time behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Which States Have the Most Exonerees?

Washington DC leads the nation with more than 2 exonerations per every 100,000 cases—this rate is twice as high as it is in Illinois—the state with the next highest rate of exonerations, and 30 times as high as that of the state with the least amount of exonerations—Colorado. One study found that at least 4.1 percent of all those sentenced to death are later found to be innocent of the crime they were convicted for. So far, for 2017, the most exonerated prisoners are in Florida, with 27, and in Illinois, with 20. The state of Mississippi has exonerated four prisoners so far in 2017.

In 2015, Mississippi compensated more than a dozen people for wrongful convictions; Mississippi law provides $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment, up to a maximum of $500,000, however the exoneree must seek compensation within three years of the pardon or overturned conviction, and, once the money is accepted by the wrongly convicted person, that person may not sue the state.

How Many Innocent Prisoners Have Been Executed?

While it is impossible to say just how many of the 1,450 prisoners executed since 1976 may have been innocent, there are a number of cases which exhibit extremely strong evidence of innocence. Of fourteen questionable executions, eight of those were in Texas. Carlos DeLuna was executed in Texas in 1989, after being sentenced to death row in 1983. More than twenty years later, an investigation done by the Chicago Tribune revealed a significant amount of evidence that DeLuna was innocent of fatally stabbing Wanda Lopez, a convenience store clerk. Ruben Cantu was executed in Texas in 1993, after being convicted in 1985 of the shooting death of a San Antonio man during an attempted robbery.

Cantu was only 17 when he was sentenced to death, and after his execution, a key eyewitness in the case, as well as Cantu’s co-defendant came forward to profess his innocence. In fact, the eyewitness, Juan Moreno (who was also wounded during the robbery) says he only identified Cantu as the suspect because he was pressured by authorities, and was afraid of the police. Moreno said he told the police twice that Cantu was not the shooter, however the police officers continued to pressure him to finger Cantu. It is almost inconceivable that innocent people have been executed in the United States, and certainly raises questions about the death penalty in general.

Exonerations in 2016

As the year (so far) in which there were more exonerations than in any other year—and double the number of exonerations from 2011—the following facts apply to those 2016 exonerations:

  • Of the 166 exonerations in 2016, 52 were exonerated for murder and 2 for manslaughter.
  • Fifteen people were exonerated for other violent crimes such as attempted murder, arson and robbery.
  • Seventy-three of the exonerations for non-violent offences, with most of those for drug possession, and most from one singe county—Harris County, Texas.
  • Twenty-four of those exonerated were for convictions for sex crimes, with 16 of those for child sexual abuse.
  • Of the 166 exonerations, official misconduct was identified in 70 of the cases—a record number.
  • A staggering 94 of these cases in 2016 turned out to be for cases where no crime actually occurred—two-thirds for drug cases, 1 for murder and 15 for child sexual abuse.
  • Fifty-eight of the 2016 exonerations took place in Texas, 16 in Illinois, and 14 in New York. The state of Mississippi had no exonerations in 2016.
  • One of those exonerated in 2016 was convicted in 1964, six were convicted in the 1980’s, and the remainder were convicted from 1990-2016.
  • Seventeen of the 2016 exonerations were based on DNA evidence.

What Is Official Misconduct?

You may wonder just what “official misconduct” encompasses. While some wrongful convictions are the result of honest mistakes, many other times, those who are charged with ensuring truth and justice can lose sight of those obligations, focusing only on obtaining a conviction. The term “official misconduct” can cover police misconduct, such as threats to a witness, forensic analysts falsifying evidence, police or prosecutors concealing exculpatory evidence or even child social workers pressuring a child to claim sexual abuse, when no sexual abuse actually occurred. Other types of official misconduct include:

  • A police officer who employs “suggestion” when conducting ID procedures
  • Coercion of false confessions by police officers
  • Police officers who intentionally mislead jurors
  • Police officers or prosecutors who provide incentives to informants for unreliable evidence
  • Prosecutors who deliberately destroy, mistreat or mishandle evidence
  • Prosecutors who allow witnesses they know are not credible to testify
  • Prosecutors who pressure defense witnesses not to testify
  • Prosecutors who make misleading arguments which overstate the value of testimony

In an effort to stop official misconduct which leads to wrongful convictions, several states have implemented justice reform commissions to advocate for changes in the system. As an example, after nine men were proven innocent through DNA testing, the Senate created the Innocence Commission in 2006. Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, Connecticut and California have also created commissions to study wrongful convictions.

Why Would a Suspect Confess to a Crime He or She Did Not Commit?

More than one out of four people who were wrongfully convicted, and later exonerated by DNA evidence falsely confessed to the crime. Many people find this fact almost unbelievable. After all, why would an innocent person confess to a crime—particularly a crime as heinous as murder, rape or child abuse? There are a number of reasons people could confess to a crime they did not commit, but the primary reason is that they believe if they comply with the police—say what the police are pressuring them to say—it will be more beneficial to them. Other factors which contribute to false confessions during police interrogations include:

  • Intoxication
  • Coercion
  • Mental impairment
  • Ignorance of rights or of the law
  • Diminished capacity
  • Fear of violence from the police
  • Actual infliction of harm to the suspect by the police
  • Misunderstanding the situation

Any confession obtained from a juvenile is suspect, since children are unlikely to be fully aware of the situation, and are much easier to manipulate. Those with mental disabilities, or diminished capacity may falsely confess because they believe they must agree with authority figures. An impaired mental state due to drugs or alcohol can also bring a false admission of guilt. Adults who are fully mentally capable, can still give a false confession, particularly after they have been questioned for hours and are exhausted, or when they believe they will be allowed to go home if they confess, then can prove their innocence later.

Since it is perfectly legal for police officers to employ tricks or deception in the interrogation room, a suspect may be (untruthfully) told there is solid evidence proving their guilt, even that a forensic test links them to the crime. Other times, suspects are told they are going to be convicted no matter whether they confess or not, but that their sentence will be much lighter if they simply go ahead and confess. Finally, some suspects are told the only way they can avoid the death penalty is to confess to the crime, and the suspect panics, and confesses to a crime he or she did not commit. It is imperative that wrongful convictions due to false confessions ends—and this can happen if interrogations are electronically recorded from beginning to end.

Racial Disparities in Wrongful Convictions

Unfortunately, racial injustice must be added into the mix of overall injustice when talking about wrongful convictions. Researchers found that black people were disproportionately affected by wrongful convictions, particularly for murder, drug charges and sexual assault. In fact, innocent blacks were seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent whites. Further statistics regarding racial disparities in wrongful convictions include:

  • Among convicted murderers, African-Americans are 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other races, and are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing a white victim.
  • Police misconduct is much more likely in murder convictions involving black defendants, as opposed to murder convictions involving white defendants.
  • Black murder defendants typically spend at least three years longer in prison prior to being exonerated than white murder defendants.
  • A black prisoner who is serving time in prison for a sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white prisoner serving time for sexual assault.
  • A primary reason for such a large racial disparity in wrongful convictions, is mistaken eyewitness IDs by white victims, for violent crimes involving black assailants.
  • Although blacks and whites use illegal drugs at about the same rate, African Americans are 5 times as likely to be sent to prison for drug possession as white defendants, and innocent African Americans are 12 times more likely to be convicted of a drug crime than innocent white defendants.
  • Cross-racial misidentification is a problem, particularly among white female victims who accuse the wrong black man of assault or sexual assault.
  • The black men who refused to plead guilty to an assault or sexual assault received considerably longer prison sentences than white men in the same situations.
  • Even once new evidence of innocence began to emerge, there was more resistance to releasing the black defendants than the white defendants.

Mississippi’s Response to Wrongful Convictions

The George C. Cochran Innocence Project, through the University of Mississippi School of Law was established in 2006, and is committed to providing high quality legal representation to Mississippi state prisoners serving lengthy periods of incarcerations who have evidence of wrongful conviction. The George C. Cochran Innocence Project also works to identify and address problems in the Mississippi criminal justice system. John Grisham and his wife Renee Grisham are Ole Miss Law alumni and supporters of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project. There have been nine exonerations by this Project since its inception, and those with the Project have spent 3,946 days fighting injustice in the state of Mississippi.

Contact Our Jackson Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are arrested and charged with a crime in Jackson, Hattiesburg, Meridian, or anywhere in the State of Mississippi, you need to fight for your rights and protect your freedom. The best way to do this is to hire an experienced Jackson criminal defense attorney immediately.

At Coxwell & Associates, PLLC, our attorneys believe in fighting aggressively for our clients and we can build a defense that is designed to expose the holes in the prosecution’s case against you. Contact Coxwell & Associates today at (601) 265-7766 or click on the button below.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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