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. nik green

    How many innocent people have been put to death? Nobody knows... an innocent defendant protecting his innocence is always ignored by the system – corrupt prosecutors want to keep their jobs, and the "justice" system prides itself in being "fair", and its officials and the corporate media perpetuate that myth. Furthermore, people murdered by the state cannot talk.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      The irony is that the longer a person protests their innocence then the longer they usually serve because they are deemed to be unable to admit their guilty.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. saywhat

    good morning @ banasy. Hope you enjoyed your weekend.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Good afternoon, saywhat.
      It was lovely.
      I hope yours was, also.

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

    What is amazing is that prosecutors or police face virtually no consequences for fabricating evidence and falsely implicating someone. Worst case scenario for them is resignation, and even that is rare. For their victims, it is most of their life.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • zulugolf

      I agree,
      The judiciary and the trial lawyers association hold everyone to a much higher standard than themselves. That's why people can get huge settlements for their own mistakes (I.E. spilling hot coffee on themselves if you remember that one) and yet they can destroy someones life through zealousness to get a conviction and false evidence or forced confessions and the police, lawyers and judiciary take no responsibility for their mistakes.

      May 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      can we put the "hot coffee" mess to bed already? How many times do I (and countless others) have to set the record straight?

      They handed the 79 yr old lady nearly boiling water (190 degrees) and it seriously injured her. She wasn't just burned – she was disfigured and required hospital care. At no point in the case did the lawyer or anyone else claim that she wasn't responsible for actually spilling the coffee – they claimed McD's was negligent in serving coffee that hot without sufficient warning.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jim

    1 in 4 prisoners in the world are American. 1 in 32 Americans are on parole or in jail. 1 in 100 adults are in jail. Prison for profit is booming. The new slave labor courtesy of the corrupt police and "judicial" system.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • kudo

      really? free labor? I would love for you to show anyone here that prison or facility you're talking about. 2000 is a very small % if you look at the years involved–23. How about the fact jurors convicted them? yeah, people like you and me.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      Kudo – over half of the people convicted never appeared in court with a jury. Poor people can't afford justice.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lous F

    So, what group of people is the largest majority in prison, and least minority out of prison?

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

      the poor/lower class?

      May 21, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      The poor

      May 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  6. katahdin

    Expect more unjust convictions now that our prison system is being run for profit. The drive to keep every bed filled so that stock prices keep increasing has led to wholesale imprisonment that is found in no other country, except perhaps North Korea, where prison labor supports their economy.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |

    One way to help solve this problem is to start polygraphing witness' in high case profile with the same questions that will be asked at the trial. If they pass, they testify. If they fail, they are removed from the list to testify.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      I have a relative that is a pathological liar; they can lie and pass a lie detector test at the same time.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kim S

    The overzealous prosecutors should have to serve the same time as their vitims.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. katahdin

    A few years ago, 13 innocent people in Texas were convicted of drug dealing were based on absolutely nothing but the testimony of a crooked undercover cop. There was no physical evidence of any kind. But the prosecutor brought a case based on the cop's word, and the jury bought it.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • plenty

      Texas, home of the kangaroo courts.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      IUn my childhood cops were the good guys. They are only thugs with paychecks now

      May 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. nlcatter

    2 judges in Colorado who convicted an innocent man as DAs
    were kicked off the bench!

    finally someone got their due!!

    May 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lizabeth

      When someone is found innocent the person who fought to put them in prison should definitely be in jail the same length of time. That would hault some over zealous procecutor's from pushing to convict just to make a name for themselves. This nation has imprisioned more innocents than any place on earth.

      May 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Lizabeth

    There are so many in prison who have never harmed anyone or done anything except choose to smoke a joint, yes I know it is against the law, but shoutd it be? Of taking an unprescribed narcotic pill. I know because a family member of mine got 2.5 years because the judge over reacted to him in drug court. This justice system needs a major over haul in the USA.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Missy

    Yikes! sorry meant @ saywhat. Not @ saywha wha wha 😉 sorry lol

    May 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Oh The Inhumanity

    I'm wondering how many have been wrongly executed. Actually, in my opinion, they are all wrongly executed but I understand they go by state.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Steve

    Makes you wonder how many wrongfully convicted folks they have not exonerated. Makes 2000 good cases for doing away with the death penalty. Now that the phone camera is logging just how upright the police are, I'd wager there is many, many more.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Vad

    Apporximately 195000 people die each year as a result of medical mistakes. (HealthGrades Patient Safety in American Hospitals Study." Americans consume 80% of the worlds legally prescribed pain killers. (American society of Intervention Pain Physicans) and I am supposed to worry about 2000 people mistakenly convicted in 23 years? The stoopid people on this board think this 2000 people is conclusive proof of a corrupt system? Once again this country has its priorities completely messed up.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh The Inhumanity

      "The stoopid people". It is "stupid", stupid. I love when someone tries to sound intelligent and loses all credibility when they actually type it out.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      yeah, you are supposed to worry about your fellow man, thats part of being in a society. I wasnt aware that you had to pick and choose who you were to worry about based on figures.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vad

      It was deliberate sarcasm "inhumanity." I just didn't think anyone would be Fish enough to bite on that. Guess I was wrong. What a sheep!

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