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. donemewrong1

    I'd like the powers-that-be to look at my case–falsely accused of molesting children. That did not stop the state from "losing" evidence, not keeping records of a meeting with the accusers and the police investigator, and blocking my efforts to take a polygraph. Even an admission that my accusers were coached in what to say was not figured into the situation. My lawyer at the time basically wussed out and said plead no contest or go to jail–there would be no other alternative, he said. I have somehow lived through years on my state's s*x offender registry, and the end is not yet in sight.
    If we had a perfect legal system, there would be no exonerations "after the fact". But the system currently panders to fear-mongering, hysteria-producing elements who cannot and do not think through the consequences, the "fallout" of their demands. Some of the people responsible for these errors have themselves insulated from most of not all accountability for their (mis-)deeds.
    Please work for major overhauls and improvements in what too many people still think is a flawless system. Please stop, listen to, and then think about what questions and criticisms are being raised. If we don't. we betray and pervert everything the USA is supposed to represent.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bill

    The fact is, as a civilized country in this 21st century, we need to stop the endless, mindless get-even games we play with our inmates and start a serious effort towards a rehab and renewal (along with punnishment) corrections model. This is costing way too much in effort, money and angst and the results are not very good either!

    May 21, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. 1amazed1

    I worked as a correctional officer. I have seen those and wonder what the heck they are doing in prison. Some stories are sad but most are stone cold killers. Its sad that some are in there that dont belong.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. JUGGERNAUT

    I WONDER WHAT PERCENTAGE ARE AFRICAN AMERICANS......

    PROBABLY 90% OF THOSE WRONGFULLY JAILED,.......MAKES YOU WONDER HOW MANY MORE ARE STILL IN JAIL.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. wildone

    I agree with Blackstones Formulation, but unfortunately we are all expendable to the State and our guilt or innocents does not matter. In a Police State, all are presumed guilty.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • wildone

      ...before I am convicted by the "spelling NAZI's" here, I meant "innocence", not innocents.

      May 21, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. tiffany

    to Oh The Inhumanity, you are more worried about spelling and proper grammar than actually listening what people have to say. You judge people solely on this and nothing else. If anyone is uneducated it's you. You worried about things that really don't matter and talk tough behind your computer. You asked for others to give them your address. Why don't you give us yours and then we can come over for the spelling test.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  7. NVJON

    I don't see anyone suggesting a better system. Could it be that the U.S. justice system is as good as any justice system is ever going to be?

    May 21, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kenneth

    Break it down by race and gender please to really show the world what's happening, or what has happened! This is still going on. I'm sure it's primarily African-American Males!

    May 21, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. NVJON

    No system of justice is ever going to be perfect. I don't see any "posters" suggesting a better system than we have in the U.S..

    May 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Brian Richards

    We need harsher penalties for bad cops and prosecutors who wrongly convict. The penalties should be at least as long as the original conviction and protective custody should be suspended. Juries, too should serve time. Unfair? They are more responsible for the wrong conviction than the accused who served time.

    May 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  11. v

    america is known the world over to be prison happy. america is in a total police state.

    May 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. tupperhouse

    American justice hasn't progress since the Salem witch hunts. It's lets make a deal justice. If you tell us who is a witch we won't burn you at the stake. Today, it's if you tell us who the biggest crook is we will let you go or make your sentence minimal. Martha Steward wouldn't play their game and took her time in jail, which is more than we can say about the rest of Wall street.

    May 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • They are good at some things.

      well, they claim they got one more today.

      May 21, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. DarthWoo

    With the proliferation of for-profit prison systems, can we really expect anything to get any better? Here in Pennsylvania, a judge was convicted a couple years back for wrongfully sending juveniles to a for-profit detention center in exchange for kickbacks.

    May 21, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  14. They are good at some things.

    They are good at some things, but not everything. It would be hell to be falsely accused. I suppose we all are on some level, and it wrecks your life. People think things that aren't quite right or think you think things that you don't think. Or that you did things that you didn't do. Damages people. And they don't care because they think they are right.

    May 21, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. edeveryday

    These statistics about people being wrongfully convicted and sentenced don't bother me at all. You have to look on the bright side. Just think of ALL the crimes these jive-assses didin't get a chance to commit while they were being held in jail. That's the big plus!

    May 21, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • scratsdad

      Wow what a profound statement. I bet you sleep well at night. You must be associated with the justice system in some way. I'm will to bet you've turned someone in to homeland security for farting in an elevator.

      May 22, 2012 at 7:56 am | Report abuse |
    • David

      Well, if your son or daughter had been wrongfully convicted, I am sure you won't sleep well at night.

      May 22, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
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