May 21st, 2012
10:36 AM ET

More than 2,000 wrongfully convicted people exonerated in 23 years, researchers say

More than 2,000 people have been exonerated of serious crimes since 1989 in the United States, according to a report by college researchers who have established the first national registry of exonerations.

Researchers say their registry is the largest database of these types of cases and showcases some of the major issues with the criminal justice system, including that the leading causes of wrongful convictions are perjury, faulty witness identification and misconduct by prosecutors.

"No matter how tragic they are, even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails," says a report released by the authors. "If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about."

Read the report (PDF) | Exonerations by state and county (PDF)

The registry itself, which looks deeply into 873 specific cases of wrongful conviction, examined cases based on court documents as well as from groups that have long documented wrongful convictions. That group of wrongfully convicted spent more than 10,000 total years in prison, according to the report, with an average of 11 years each.

Many of the cases of the wrongfully accused were championed by the Innocence Project, a well-known group that works with many inmates to try to clear their names based on DNA evidence. The group has documented 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations. The earliest came in 1989, when DNA testing was being heavily used to re-examine cases for the first time.

The database is a fully searchable list of those who were convicted, broken down by their crimes, sentences and reason for exoneration. Some go into extensive detail about the long and treacherous roads to exoneration that prisoners have undergone.

Check out the database

James Bain is the longest-serving prisoner to be exonerated by DNA evidence, spending 35 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. He was convicted in 1974, at age 19, of kidnapping and raping a 9-year-old boy in Lake Wales, Florida.

His life was returned to him in December 2009, when a Florida judge freed him after DNA testing proved he did not commit the crime.

"Bain’s photo was included in a lineup of five photographs, and the victim picked Bain as his attacker. Based on the identification and little else, Bain was convicted and sentenced to life in prison," according to the database. "Bain had no criminal record at the time of his arrest, and insisted he was at home watching television with his sister when the crime occurred."

In the backyard of his mother's home in Tampa, Bain stood among grapefruit and orange trees that weren't even planted when he went to prison and said he'd like to tour the country on his motorcycle.

"You spend 35 years in prison, and just the little things, like a grapefruit tree or an orange tree ... Those had vanished for me," he said. "I never thought I'd get a chance to see another one of these."

Bain is only one part of a much larger story. Although the registry report makes clear that most convictions in the U.S. are correct, the database shows a larger need to look closely at how the criminal justice system works, the authors say.

The report also shows which states have exonerated the most people. It notes that Illinois and New York may top the list in part because of the large presence of two major wrongful conviction centers in each state. From 1989 to 2011, the following states had tallied the most exonerations:

1. Illinois: 101
2. New York: 88
3. Texas: 84
4. California: 79
(Federal: 39)
5. Michigan: 35
6. Louisiana: 34
7. Florida: 32
8. Ohio: 28
9. Massachusetts: 27
10. Pennsylvania: 27

The report also takes a look at the leading cause of wrongful convictions for specific crimes.
The project's findings alone, the authors say, are reason enough to look closely and continue to monitor convictions across the country.

"We cannot prevent all false convictions, but we must not compound these tragedies by stubbornness or arrogance or, worst of all, indifference," the report says. "The more we learn about false convictions the better able we will be to prevent them, or failing that, to identify and correct them after the fact."

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Filed under: Courts • Crime • Justice
soundoff (182 Responses)
  1. saywhat

    As forensic science progresses I would hope that justice served is indeed that. I feel sorry for those who passed away hoping for this and am happy for those who were exonerated.
    Mistakes though would continue to be made both intentional and otherwise and wrong would still be done. That is how it is.

    May 21, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      @saywhat:
      Word.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sameeker

    People who lie, fabricate evidence or withhold evidence should receive a mandatory 30 years and forfeiture of all family assets. This should be doubled for people like cops and prosecutors. I also wonder how many people take plea bargins when they are really innocent because they can't afford a good defense, or were pressured by the threat of prison.

    May 21, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • vincent

      Well said in reply to Sameeker, false accusers definitely need to be punished.
      thanks so much for your post.:)

      May 21, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • MandoZink

      This is so, so true. Sadly, I am about to spend six months in jail because I had no witnesses to prove the cop was lying. He perjured himself multiple times in court. I had to come to terms with the fact that a plea bargain prevents me from spending 5 years in prison. I truly feel for those who have to deal with worse. We cannot trust the system if its servants are corrupt.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • saywhat

      Agree. Rightly said @ sameeker.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh The Inhumanity

      I have wondered that also. When someone has to plead guilty just so they don't get a life sentence, knowing full well they were innocent. Something is very wrong with that picture.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Landon

      One problem with that idea is that it creates a strong disincentive for those who have lied to then recant their stories and thus exonerate the accused. Need to figure out how we can punish people for lying and fabricating evidence without also potentially punishing those who they are lying about.

      May 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ya no

    Misconduct by prosecutors? Can you imagine? It's how many in the win column – guilt, suffering and death are of little concern. Like any other political position, keeping your job is paramount. Screw the victims.

    May 21, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. andres

    Official misconduct, not a surprize at all. The whole criminal justice system is designed to reward convictions, from the police, prosecutors, and judges. Anyone being seen as soft on crime will not get promotions, reelections, or appointments. While there is little we an do about these poor incentives, we can work to make any one who commits official misconduct liable for prosecution, and even more importantly prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. Until this happens, we will continue to get 'misbehaving' police, prosecutors, and judges.

    May 21, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  5. sameeker

    Go to ripoffreport. You can post your story there and they can't do a thing about it.

    May 21, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. steve

    yawn

    May 21, 2012 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Kristen

      Then go take a nap you heartless pig

      May 21, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Until you or someone you care about is wrongly accused.....

      And I would have little sympathy for someone that cares not for the innocent wrongly convicted.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. No Justice

    Nothing is being done right in the United States of America . . . it's so sad what we've become! Imagine . . . for only a few seconds . . what it would feel like to be serving PRISON time for something you DIDN'T do!!!! And what do they consider "wrongfully convicted people" when just last week a woman in Florida was sentenced to over 20 YEARS in PRISON for firing a warning shot at her abusive spouse! Keep looking . . . I'm sure you'll find a whole lot more wrongfully convicted people!

    May 21, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • TinKnight

      No Justice...I'd say that 2,000+ people being exonerated shows that we're still TRYING to do things right.
      We're human, and mistakes do happen...yes, there are times where police or prosecutorial aggression can blind them to the human side of things, but that's because we, as a people, have told them to be blindly aggressive.

      As for the woman in Florida...she left her house, grabbed a gun, went back inside and shot at her ex-spouse, putting her children's lives in grave danger. Perhaps 20 years was harsh, but she already had convictions on her record and a history of violence. 10 years for attempted murder AND child endangerment would be a bare minimum, I would think.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Say what?

    I'd like to see the data that shows how many guilty people that were set free cause of whatever. There are many more that were guilty and should have been in prison than those that were innocent and were found guilty...

    May 21, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      So what is your point? A guilty person going free is an injustice. An innocent person convicted is a tragedy.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh The Inhumanity

      It doesn't make up for even ONE innocent going to prison

      May 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Say what?

    andres, what in Karen's post that can be sued over? There is no law that prevents you from listing a persons name, saying a person name. Dont try and be a lawyer.....

    May 21, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  10. DeeNYC

    a lot of this could be avoided if we get rid of jury of our "peers" Let's face it the majority of the public are too dumb to even judge American Idol let alone another human being.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alf

      lol...so true

      May 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      I think the phrase is something like '12 people who are too dumb to get out of jury duty are not my peers'

      May 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. David

    An average of only 20 errors per year with all the criminals going through the system...I can live with that!

    May 21, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer

      You can live with that? What if it was you that wrongly convicted and imprisoned? Could you live with that? I can't comprehend why anyone would lie, falsely accuse, withdraw evidence, fabricate evidence, etc for the sake of a conviction. How can someone like that sleep at night?

      May 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      Considering this is just the tip of an iceberg, I can't live with it. As the article noted, if this were all of them then it would say good things, but since it is clearly not, we have a problem.

      And note the percentage that involve official misconduct. THAT is a systemic problem.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Math is a bit off..it's more like 87 per year, if you're averaging it out....

      And Illinois is #1! Yay! (Rolls eyes)

      May 21, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • katahdin

      Could you live with it if you were the person wrongfully convicted? What if it was your spouse, son, or daughter?

      May 21, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh The Inhumanity

      give me your name, address and ph# and I'll see if maybe I saw you doing something that I can testify to that will put you in prison for 35 yrs.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ceg

    For this reason we should not have the dealth penalty!!! Everyone of the exoneratees should be given a 1 million dollars for their loss of life, income, undo hardships and for the big mistake that can't be repaid.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      This is why I am against the death penalty. As soon as you introduce a criteria to be meet to get a death sentence then you open the system up to abuse and mistakes. I think life in prison at least grants the chance of the mistake being found at some point, and if none is discovered then it keeps them away from the public if they were guilty.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rob in FL

    Prosecutors have all the incentives, but none of the consequences because of prosecutorial-immunity, which basically gives them a free pass to withhold evidence, suborn perjury, and mislead the jury about forensic evidence. Prosecutors are "untouchable".

    May 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. SkiOne

    I wonder how many were black? (out of the 2000)

    May 21, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PaulieJ

    It is truly a shame that an innocent serves time and is indicative of faults in our criminal justice system.
    I would like to see added (though obviously the outcomes cannot be known) of how many times crucial/damning evidence gets labeled inadmissible and who appears to be the obvious open-n-shut case culprit, walks.
    Not to mention how many times multiple time repeat offenders get early release back into the populace.
    The innocent serving time is by far not the only problems within our current criminal justice system.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • MarkinFL

      A guilty person going free is an injustice. A innocent person being convicted is a tragedy.

      There is a difference. Two problems that both need to be addressed. Problem is that the way we usually address the first problem results in more of the second problem.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
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