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. citizen

    I don't see Oklahoma on that list. We are keeping the reputed perpetrators behind bars.

    May 21, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  2. citizen9

    I don't see Oklahoma on that list. We are keeping the reputed perpetrators behind bars.

    May 21, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. allboot

    JUSTICE system is more about money then really justice... Your a price tag once you come in to the court..

    May 21, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. tiddingwright

    Perjury and Official Misconduct ..... The people who committed these CRIMES should be locked up to serve the sentenances of those they wrongfully convicted. This country is simply out of control.

    May 21, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Allen

      indeed, to promote perjury or false and misleading statements is a criminal act.

      May 22, 2012 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Palmer

      So true – THE PEOPLE DONE THE CRIME SHOULD do the time, but so many innocent people is doing time for a crime that they didnt do. That is so wrong. How can a judge overrule a jurie just beacause he has it in for the victim. I do not get this country.

      August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  5. rswon

    I think the part of the problem is that Prosecuting attorneys see their position as a stepping stone to bigger political positions. They don't care about justice, they care about making a name for themselves.

    Another problem is this whole "tough on crime" mentality that started with the "war on drugs". Now, almost everything is a felony. Couple that with the "three strikes you're doing 10 years" type of laws and you've got a lot of people in prison for what should be misdemeanor offenses.

    May 21, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Innocent Bro-in-Law still in while the guilty are roaming streets.

      Wow, rswon, you are so right about the D-attorneys. For my Brother-in-law's case, the DA whipped out pictures of his kids to the jury and had them eating out of his hands the rest of the case. It was sad from then on. He made jokes and talked about what his dad use to tell him when he was young boy, the jury had their minds made up from the get-go. I wish we can do a do-over with a whole different jury.

      October 12, 2012 at 2:29 am | Report abuse |
  6. StillInnocent

    It is worth remembering that these cases only represent the ones they know were innocent, it makes you wonder how many other prisoners on and off death row are innocent of the crimes they have been convicted of. Changes are needed in the system starting with prosecutors being held criminally liable for willful malfeasance, police officers being prosecuted for falsifying police reports and perjury and the mandatory video taping of all interrogations by police officers. In addition no one should be forced to accept a plea bargain because they are afraid of being successfully prosecuted for a crime they didn't commit. Finally, take the profit motive out of the criminal justice and penal system, it is not in the interest of a free society for anyone to profit from the incarceration and punishment of their fellow citizens.

    May 21, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jthomasin

    At least DNA evidence has improved our justice system somewhat. Insecure local police are probably the main problem, making mistakes and pressuring the wrong people.

    May 22, 2012 at 5:43 am | Report abuse |
  8. Allen

    If the states had to pay for wrongful convictions at a rate of $50K per year of incarceration, they would learn to pick up their feet sooner and faster when the likelihood of an error was discovered. Money is a deterrant in many cases to help prevent abuses.
    I have worked in the justice system and have seen abuses.

    May 22, 2012 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. ricardo1968

    Exonerated doesn't necessarily mean innocent. Mistakes can be made both ways. In our lifetimes there will be innocents being punished and guilty ones going free. All we can do is our best, hopefully so that people don't start taking the law into their own hands.

    May 22, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  10. MazeAndBlue

    This is exactly why I am against the death penalty. Most of these false convictions are people of color with little money for a proper defense attorney.

    May 22, 2012 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
  11. Susan Hjeltness

    This happen to me ..........
    I cryed for him......... i did 5 years in prison for a crime i did not do im in fedreal court now i need help they withheld DNA finger prints...with me also . If anyone can send me help please do .

    July 16, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. wsewell

    The problem with the trial base system, is it turns into more of an arguement. The problem with an arguement is it becomes more about winning the arguement, then doing what is right. There are plenty of people who get set free due to a technicality, and there are people who are wrongfully convicted because the prosecutors have more evidence. That doesn't mean they are right, it just means they had more evidence. The truth is the world doesn't wait for you ot gather the information. I'm not saying I have all the answers to fix it, but I can point out why it doesn't work.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • resharpen

      You say sometimes convicts are set free because "it just means they had more evidence.". NOT true. The convict's lawyers have to file an appeal, and convince a Judge that the new evidence would make a big enough difference in the case, so that the convict should get a NEW TRIAL. ONly then, if they win, can they get a new trial, and then they have to win that trial, using all the evidence, in order for the convict to be freed. This is a lengthy and expensive process for the convict. There are cases where the convict is immediately freed by the Appeals Court, but this is rare.
      You also said: "he world doesn't wait for you ot gather the information.". Huh? What if the police lied or prosecutors HID evidence? how can you 'gather' it then?? At a trial, btw, it is NOT the responsibility of the accused to 'gather ALL the evidence'. However, what many do not know, is that that the prosecution has an absolute DUTY to provide to the defense & to the court, ALL the evidence & information that it finds relating to the case. The prosecution's first duty is to find out the TRUTH of the matter, no matter if it helps the Defendant or not. The prosecution is not supposed to just 'use' the particular evidence which shows that the Defendant committed the crime, & then NOT give all the evidence to the Defendant's lawyer.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. volsocal

    One of us needs to start up the false exoneration analysis project.

    September 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. dontbow

    so the guy admits to raping and killig his 14 year old cousin but new dna evidence proves he didnt do it. hmmm that doesnt sound like an open and shut case either. lol You cannot truely take these numbers of wrongly convicted people as accurate, they go through a pretty in-depth process to even get to geing convicted of such crimes in the first place and the dna is not the ONLY thing to look at in most cases because it dends on where they got it and whether its still the right sample. right OJ?

    September 30, 2012 at 5:24 am | Report abuse |
    • resharpen

      An accused who 'admits guilt' often does so, because the police intimidate him; tell him that he'll get the 'death penalty' if he doesn't admit it, or will arrest his family/friends; lie, tell him that his 'friends' have already told the cops he did it; police also intimidate him for hours on end; don't give him food or allow him to rest. So many confessions are made under tremendous duress, especially by poor and/or undeducated people. THE BEST THING TO DO IS TELL THE POLICE YOU WON'T ANSWER ANY MORE QUESTIONS (you have a right to remain silent) AND/OR THAT YOU WANT TO CALL A LAWYER. Intimidation "should" stop at that point.

      October 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Alabama should be here somewhere but they are too arrogant to say that they made a mistake.

    Alabama should be on the list but they are so arrogant and behind time that they wont admit when they have made a mistake. Too many minorities are in prison for petty crimes and wasting tax payers money.

    October 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
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