Exonerations in the United States reached a record high last year, driven by mushrooming support from police and prosecutors to revisit closed cases, according to a new report.
The 125 people cleared in 27 states far surpassed the previous record – 91 the year before. The jump comes amid growing interest by law enforcers to review past cases for errors and to right wrongs. Last year, 67 exonerations were driven or supported by law enforcement.
“More prosecutors see this as an important part of their job,” said Sam Gross, professor at the University of Michigan Law School and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, which released the report Tuesday. “They have also noticed it’s politically popular.”
In Baltimore, the State’s Attorney’s office helped vacate the conviction of a man 46 years after he was convicted of murder. In Cleveland, three men convicted of a 1975 murder they didn’t commit were cleared, setting a new record of time behind bars for an exoneree: 39 years, 3 months 9 days. In Tulsa, DNA testing showed a mother hadn’t killed her 15-month-old baby, leading prosecutors to dismiss charges after nearly 20 years. And in Detroit, a man was released after police got a tip that the wrong person had been convicted in a 2006 murder.
Houston prosecutors led the way, clearing 33 people of drug convictions after forensic tests showed the defendants hadn’t actually been carrying drugs. In Brooklyn, 10 were exonerated, with the majority of them originally investigated by one discredited detective.
A decade ago, the idea of a district attorney questioning his own office’s closed cases was considered radical and freighted with political risk. But early DNA testing proved people had been wrongly convicted, and helped reveal errors that frequently contributed: false confessions, inaccurate eyewitness identification and evidence that might have been helpful to the defense but was never disclosed.
In 2002, the nation’s first so-called Conviction Integrity Unit was opened by a Santa Clara, Calif., prosecutor who sought to revisit cases with potential errors. Today, 14 cities and the U.S. Attorney’s office for Washington, D.C., have such review units, and their work is increasingly focusing on non-DNA cases.
Gross notes that six of those review units were announced just last year, and he expects more cities to follow suit. The efforts are bearing fruit. The Houston exonerations followed a decision by its review unit to systematically reexamine drug convictions because of longstanding concerns that suspects were pleading guilty even though they carried no drugs. The lesson, says Gross, is that suspects will plead guilty to crimes they don’t commit, and that police agencies should insist on testing drugs even after a guilty plea verdict is obtained.
While exonerations are increasingly moving away from DNA testing, the forensic science is still integral to proving some cases.
Six of those exonerated last year had been sentenced to death, including three Cleveland men convicted of a brutal 1975 robbery and murder outside a grocery store. The case began to unravel with a 2011 magazine article highlighting flaws, and snowballed after the main witness recanted to his pastor two years later. The man who’d been wrongfully convicted as the gunman, Ricky Jackson, was released from prison in November after 39 years behind bars. Wiley Bridgeman and Ronnie Bridgeman also were cleared, though they spent less time behind bars.
Scripps National Reporter Isaac Wolf can be contacted at Isaac.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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