The National Registry of Exonerations recently released its report on Exonerations in 2018. Importantly, it found that official misconduct and misleading forensic evidence were the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
2018 Statistics on Wrongful Convictions
There were 151 exonerations that occurred in the United States in 2018. The exonerations were for the following crimes:
- 66 murders
- 2 manslaughters
- 17 sex crimes – 7 of those involved children
- 16 other violent crimes including arson, robbery, and attempted murder
- 47 non-violent offenses including drug crimes, fraud, theft, and traffic offenses
These men and women who were exonerated spent more than 1,600 combined years in prison.
Causes of Wrongful Convictions
In these exonerations, offcial misconduct took place in 107 of these cases. Mistaken eyewitness identification occurred in 31 cases. False confessions were given in 19 cases. Perjury or false accusations occurred in 111 cases.
Almost one-third of these wrongful conviction cases involved a police corruption scheme in Chicago where a police officer framed individuals on drug charges.
In a New York Times report, reporter Heather Murphy examined the misleading forensic evidence that led to many wrongful convictions and how experts often exaggerated statistical claims to bolster their unscientific opinions.
Murphy noted that once an expert has been qualified to testify in a courtroom, there are often few limits on what they can and cannot say. According to Simon Cole, the director of the registry and a professor of Criminology, Law and Society at UC-Irvine, “An expert can say whatever they want.” This includes inventing odds like “one in a million” or “1 in 129,600.”
“A lot of the problem with forensic testimony is that the diagnosticity is overstated,” said Barbara O’Brien, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Law and author of the report. A hair sample at the crime scene that resembles a suspect’s hair “gets dressed up with this scientific certainty that isn’t justified,” she said.
Additionally, some forensic techniques that have been used to wrongly convict individuals have later been found to be invalid. In 2013, the FBI reported that testimony asserting that microscopic hair comparison could produce a match between two hairs was scientifically invalid. In 2018, an appeals judge declared that “scientific knowledge underlying the field of bite mark comparisons has evolved in a way that contradicts evidence” that was formerly used to convict a defendant.
Luckily, there are professional organizations that exist for the sole purpose of exonerating those who have been wrongly convicted. Conviction Integrity Units and Innocence Organizations were responsible for 99 of the 151 exonerations that occurred in 2018.
Conviction Integrity Units are divisions of prosecutor’s offices that work to prevent, identify, and correct false convictions. In 2018, there were 44 Conviction Integrity Units in the United States, which is almost three times the number that existed just five years earlier but still a small fraction of the number of prosecutor’s offices that seek convictions in the United States. Conviction Integrity Units were responsible for 58 exonerations in 2018.
Innocence Organizations are non-governmental organizations that are dedicated to the exoneration of wrongly convicted defendants. In 2018, Innocence Organizations represented defendants in 86 exonerations.