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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Record number of exonerations set for wrongful convictions in the United States

ST. LOUIS – A push by prosecutors and police across the United States to re-examine possible wrongful convictions contributed to a record number of exonerations in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.
The National Registry of Exonerations says 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The joint effort by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 such cases in the U.S. since 1989 while also identifying another 1,100 “group exonerations” involving widespread police misconduct, primarily related to planted drug and gun evidence.
The new report shows that nearly 40 per cent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors’ co-operation. One year earlier, nearly half of the exonerations involved such reviews.
“Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction,” said registry editor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor. “We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them.”
Texas topped the state-by-state breakdown with 13 exonerations in 2013, followed by Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan and Missouri.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police also is pushing to reduce wrongful convictions, joined by the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. The association’s recommendations to local departments include new guidelines for conducting photo lineups and witness interviews to reduce false confessions.
Fifteen of the 87 documented cases in 2013 involved convictions obtained after a defendant pleaded guilty, typically to avoid a longer prison sentence. Forty of the cases involved murder convictions, with another 18 overturned convictions for rape or sexual assault.
The number of exonerations based on DNA testing continued to decline, accounting for about one-fifth of the year’s total.
“It’s extremely valuable to use,” Gross said. “But most crimes don’t involve DNA evidence. … DNA has taught us a huge amount about the criminal justice system. Biological evidence has forced all of us to realize that we’ve made a lot of mistakes. But most exonerations involve shoe-leather, not DNA.”
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