Black criminal defendants accounted for roughly 46 percent of the 125 known exonerations in 2014, the highest annual number of exonerations recorded since 1989, according to a national registry that tracks wrongful convictions.
According to a recent report by The National Registry of Exonerations, the next highest total for exonerations was 88 recorded in 2012 and 87 in 2013. Researchers said that prosecutors have increasingly taken a harder look at flawed cases, which contributed to jump in exonerations.
The powerful role that prosecutors play in the criminal justice system has increasingly drawn sharp public criticism following grand jury proceedings involving the highly publicized deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of White police officers.
In the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. and shooting deaths of John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio and the teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., grand juries chose not to indict police officers.
Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reform in sentencing practices and urged federal prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in non-violent drug cases.
Researchers with the exonerations registry reported 716 exonerations of Black criminal defendants, compared to 624 Whites through February 6, 2015. That includes 330 exonerations for homicides, 167 for sexual assaults and another 179 for other crimes including drug crimes.
Blacks accounted for roughly 46 percent of the known exonerations in 2014. The number of Black criminal defendants exonerated in 2013 accounted for 47 percent of known cases, compared to 40 percent for Whites.
In a press release about the report, Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan and the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, said that the big story is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence.
The report credited the rise of conviction integrity units (CIU), “long-term operations that work to prevent, to identify and to remedy false convictions” for contributing to an increase in criminal exonerations.
“There were 49 CIU exonerations in 2014, including 10 murder exonerations in Brooklyn, and 29 of the 33 Harris County (Texas) drug-crime exonerations,” stated the report.
Gross said that many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.
The report said that 47 of the 125 defendants (38 percent) who were exonerated in 2014 were cleared of criminal convictions to which they had pled guilty, also a record. In fact, in 58 of the 125 known exonerations from last year, no crime occurred, according to the report, and that number is likely to grow.
“The states with the most exonerations in 2014 are Texas (39), New York (17), Illinois (7), Michigan (7), Ohio (6), North Carolina (4), Louisiana (3), Maryland (3), Oregon (3), Pennsylvania (3), and Tennessee (3),” stated the report. “The states with the most recorded exonerations are not necessarily those where most false convictions have occurred.”
In Harris County, Texas defendants often pled guilty to drug crimes before evidenced was tested. When lab tests revealed that the evidence was not an illegal substance, the convictions were overturned. More than 90 percent of the drug-crime exonerations in 2014 were no-crime cases, including all 33 drug-crime exonerations in Harris County, the report said.
“Judging from known exonerations in 2014,” said Gross. “The legal system is increasingly willing to act on innocence claims that have often been ignored.”