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. pigmore

    Just makes a person wonder how many have been wrongly executed.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. GetReal

    I have little faith in out Justice System when things like these happen.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. MikeAinFL

    This is the most eloquent (and maybe the only valid) argument against the death penalty.

    May 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bill

    DAs are elected. They do many things to get elected, including using a high visibility case to get voters to vote for them. The Duke lacrosse team fiasco is an example. There are many more.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ladyfonseca

    Ok and the number of criminals that have not been convicted or charged is?

    May 21, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Landon irrelevant to this story.

      May 21, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      So we should just throw everybody into jail just to be sure? Your statement/question has no logic

      May 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • deathwombat

      That's tragic but irrelevant. The fact that guilty people sometimes get away with their crimes doesn't justify fabricating evidence or lying under oath to get a conviction. If there isn't enough evidence to convict someone of a crime, there's a good chance that they're innocent. As soon as you convict the wrong person, you stop looking for the right person.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      It is the intention of our system to let some guilty go so that no innocent man suffers unjust treatment. For every man convicted wrongly there is one person walking free that committed a crime.

      Your question only relates that you don't understand our system.

      May 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |

    Justice is blind, or that's what I been led to believe, but courtrooms are not her venue, for courtrooms deal with crime and punishment, she, Justice, is but cold goddess you hsve to know whst goreplay to use before she will grant you entrance.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Craig from Dallas

    For future reference, why don't we make it mandatory to test for dna whenever it's available? Why don't test all prisoners for dna? This will work 2 fold. Firstly, help decrease innocent people from spending more time, and secondly, connect cold cases to prisoners already in jail. Seems fairly simple to me.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • dsaiofsda

      Test against which DNA? I'm sure they do this when they're able to or when it makes sense. Don't make the mistake of thinking you know better than the professionals.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      dsaiofsda – many times there is DNA evidence and the prosecutors will not let it be tested or used as evidence.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • George

      That would make too much sense.

      May 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • d

      Sadly, the prosecutors and the public only want convictions. With the advent of HLN and people like Nancy DisGrace, more and more innocent people will get convicted. When the media convinces the public someone is guilty, the prosecutors do whatever it takes to get a conviction. Often times doing whatever they can to keep out DNA evidence if it does not match the accused.

      The more important question is why does the government fight efforts by attorneys trying to free those wrongly convicted? They should be jumping through hoops to try and free an innocent person. Its just sad.

      May 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Ben

    No surprise Illi is leading the way. Even the prosecutors are crooks.....

    May 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      Read the whole story. Illinois has found a lot of bad convictions because the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University is located in Chicago.

      May 21, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Thomas Michaels

    Numbers don't add up. If you add the top ten states you get a total of 535 exonerations. That leave 1,435 exonerations to be divided between 40 states. That comes to an average per remaining state of 36.63 exonerations. That would rank 5th on the list. Just more evidence of media hyperbole. Mahalo!

    May 21, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Someone needs to work on their reading comprehension. This study looked at "873 specific cases", not the 'over 2000' you are doing your math with. Just another example of ignorance in America masquerading as intellect.

      May 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick H

      It may include US territories which could lead to the numbers not adding up.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daisy

      "The media" didn't write the report. Did you bother to read it?

      May 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike D

      Prove it?

      May 21, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. dutspup

    The "small percentage" is only because there are not enough resources to handle all the claims of wrongful convictions. Its not the justice system its the money system. If you have it then you wont experience it. How is it justice when it is who has the best manipulator on their team? thats not law at all. This is one reason society is starting to fail, no respect for law due to the abuse, rome is burning.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Space Chimp

    I am curious to know how many of these wrongfully convicted people have previous criminal convictions. Especially convictions similar to the crimes they were wrongfully convicted of.
    I am not naive enough to believe that there aren't corrupt prosecutors, but punishing a prosecutor for sending an innocent person to jail is not the answer. There are some cases where the man is surely guilty. He was in the area, he fits the description of the suspect and he has previous convictions for that crime. Why would the prosecutor not think it was him? And then DNA comes in and exonerates him at a later date. If that science wasn't available at that time, then you can't hold the prosecutor up to the same standards as you would now.
    Now with DNA science bring so great, there is no reason why an innocent person should go to jail.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      What many of us are saying is that the prosecutors are crooked and do it on purpose. Recently two prosecutors in Texas were proved to have lied and hid evidence, and they will never spend a day in Prison. The men they convicted spent twenty year or more in prison.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • andres

      Why does everyone assume that there is DNA at every crime scene. Often times there is none. In fact reading the story shows that only a fraction were freed based on DNA evidence.

      Any why should crooked prosecutors get a free pass on breaking the law? The only way crooked prosecutors will clean up their acts is if there are substantial penalties for breaking the law. They are lawyers and certainly not going to clean up their acts simply because we ask the very nicely to. Same should hold for the police and judges.

      May 21, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |

    How about the juvy judge, sentenced 90% of defendants to juv. detention center,one in particular, the one he was majority Owner

    May 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ret.MSG

    What's missing from the list of States with number of exonerations is Texas....Oops! I forgot....they've already executed their wrongfully convicted.

    May 21, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |

    Some prosecutors knowingly lie, hide, and falsify evidence, that would have set them free, no doubt there, yet he withheld it , knowing he imprisoned innocent young boys, his crime Was the worst in the courts history, and when it all came out, he had no comment, oddly, no consequences there. all pushed by none other than rick perrry,former D.A. in texas, He is an evil man

    May 21, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      All prosecutors lie, if you are a lawyer you lie, that is part of the trade.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Keith

    Our law was intended to let a few guilty people go free so as not to inflict unwarranted incarceration on anyone. America went off the rails long ago as far as our Judicial System goes; it no longer has anything to do with Truth and Justice.

    May 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
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