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. Oh The Inhumanity

    that is just how many they have found so far

    May 21, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. OxfordVoter

    "Pretty good" doesn't bring a wrongly executed man back to life.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Oh The Inhumanity

    " Have of the US population is below average intelligence!!! I would say your spelling is falling right into the below average category. It's "half", not "have". Quit trying to sound intelligent.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      Spelling has crap to do with intelligence. Your ignorance of that fact makes you less than qualified to judge others.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Edwin

      Keith, spelling IS related to intelligence: the more intelligent you are, the more *likely* you are to be a decent to very good speller.

      There ARE extremely smart people who can't spell at all - lots of them - but ability to spell easily and correctly is an indicator of intellectual ability - one among many indicators.

      May 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • tiffany

      Just because you know how to spell or that you are a great writer doesn't meant you are smart. That's not a way to judge someone.I rather have people suck at spelling but are able to invent things, start a business, make things, build things etc. You are only worried about people spelling and not listening to what they have to offer. You are unable to make a reasonable thought of your own because you are only concerned with spelling. That's the problem with you and my others, you being brainwashed by society. You feel the only way to be successful is to go to college and become a doctor of lawyer. This is not true. If anyone needs an education is you.

      May 21, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • OldGuy

      To invent things, be a doctor or lawyer means paying attention to details. Bad spelling and grammar is an indication of a sloppy nature.

      May 21, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cedar Rapids

    "A 99.92% correct decision rate is pretty good given all of the human components in criminal prosecution."

    Your logic is flawed. That these are the ones known to be wrong does not mean that the others are all right, it just means they have found 2000 for certain.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. nunuv yurbiz

    As a child, I thought that criminals lie, but that every day folks do not. As an adult, I've realized that every day folks are rampant liars. It saddens me. Now, I believe that you must record your whole life, and save it, in order to prove that, for example, you were just at home watching TV. lifelogging – google it. Pretty crazy that you have to record yourself sitting and watching TV to prove you weren't out raping a 9 year old.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharky

      Uh criminals do lie. Everyday people lie. We all learned to lie by age 3.

      Science is catching up. Stop with the nonsense.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Scott

    JT: also, with the hot coffee incident, all the woman asked for at first was the McDonald's pay her medical bills for the incident. They said no, even though they had received warnings BEFORE about injuries resulting from their coffee. So, the huge settlement was mainly punitive for their ignoring previous warnings and refusing to be cooperative in paying her medical bills.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • mac101

      This article is about wrongful convictions involving criminal acts, not civil suits, which are governed by a very different set of rules. Nobody in a civil suit spends time in jail.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dvet

    People are a commodity now. prisons have been privatized. They are on the stock market and they are trying to keep them to capacity. its all about greed.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. nunuv yurbiz

    Right, the hot coffee thing is overplayed. It has been fully demonstrated that McDonald's was in fact in the wrong on that one.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. farquar

    Illinois...stunner! Cook County (Chicagoland) with 78 alone! They rig trials just like they rig elections.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Furious Styles

    That's 2,000 too many. Unacceptable.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sean

    Im not saying that identifying those people and correcting the mistake isnt important, especially to those wrongly convicted, but people see studies like these and just assume that everyone in jail is really innocent.. 2000 convictions overturned in 23 years.. Lets compare that to the total number of convictions in the last 23 years and you will see how few people are wrongly imprisoned.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIke D

      That is 23 wrongful convictions that we know about. How many innocent people are in prison right now because of this extremely flawed judicial system.

      May 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      Many times the judges and prosecutors will not allow new evidence

      May 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. kim neal

    This is so sad, this is when the system needs to kick in and make sure this man is never hungry and always have a roof over his head. This system took his life my heart goes out to him and his family.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mac101

    Would be interesting to find out how many of those wrongfully convicted were black men with predominantly white juries, white DA's, etc. Also – how many had public defenders?

    Not sure how to fix this, but it sure sounds like its time to take a hard look at cases that are based only on witness identification as well as cases where the main witness has made a deal to protect his/her own neck.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • threehour cruise

      It would be interesting to see the entire details of each case.(Jury makeup, eyewitness statements, deals that were made, etc.)

      May 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      How to fix it? Start sending prosecutors to prison when they convict an innocent man.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  14. LuisWu

    And how many people have been executed that were innocent? If it took 35 years to exonerate this guy, you know there have been people executed by mistake. Some say that's the price you have to pay for justice. But I don't think they would feel that way if it was their son or daughter or wife or mother. For this reason alone we need to eliminate the death penalty.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    What's worst is the people who may have been executed who were innocent, DNA can't bring them back and may not find the guilty person. Having been a juror on a murder trial is not something you take lightly but a heineous crime deserves the maximum penalty, death.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      There is no just war; there is no good Death Penalty. The death penalty should be abolished. No matter how you justify it, you have killed a man if you sentenced him to death, just as surely as if you had your hand on the noose.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
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