The exact number of people convicted of crimes that they did not commit is unclear. As George Lavender reports, the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations currently lists over 1,400 exoneration cases. This year the National Registry recorded more than fifty cases in which “a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.” Over the last two decades there has been a continual rise in the number of recorded releases because of innocence. The number of releases is challenging to document because data is typically maintained at a county level and hardly ever comes to national attention.
Why are people falsely convicted? The reasons include mistaken witness identification, false confession, official misconduct, perjury, false accusation, and false or misleading forensic evidence. As Lavender reports, “The factors involved in a wrongful conviction vary depending on the crime.” In child sexual abuse cases, for instance, over 80% of exonerations involve perjury or false accusation. By contrast, in sexual assault cases, a majority of exonerations hinge on mistaken witness identification.
The registry includes people in prison for years and, in some cases, for decades. For example, George Lavender discusses the case of Michael Phillips. In July 2014, Phillips took a step towards clearing his name after being convicted of the 1990 rape of a 16 year-old girl in Dallas, Texas. He pleaded guilty because his attorney told him that as a black man who had been accused of raping a white teenager, he should try to avoid a jury trial. Mistaken identification led to Phillips being charged. New DNA evidence led to his exoneration.
Although Phillips’ case was widely reported in the corporate media (see, for example, coverage in the Washington Post), the larger issue of false convictions is under-reported in the establishment press.
Source: Georg Lavender, “How Many People Are Convicted of Crimes They Didn’t Commit?”, In These Times, August 12, 2014, http://inthesetimes.com/prison-complex/entry/17077/how_many_people_are_convicted_of_crimes_they_didnt_commit.
Student Researcher: Yesenia Valencia (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Suzel A. Bozada- Deas (Sonoma State University)