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. Joe

    How about a "Project Guilty" to go after all of the unsolved crimes? Oh wait, we must no care about any of the victims or there families here.....or maybe lawyers can't make any headlines or money off those cases

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

      What the hell are you talking about? Police work on unsolved crimes all the time. That's a whole different issue, though. Are you saying that you're in favor of just leaving wrongly convicted people in prison?

      May 21, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Keith

      America already imprisons 25% of the world’s prisoners and we are only 5% of the world's population.

      May 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tanya Beauchamp

    Good luck to you and your family. I really hope that people understand why this man is so humble. He lost hope and his prayers were answered. He has forgiven the justice system because he has put his faith in a higher power and was heard. See when you know that the higher power has heard your call it don't matter what others have done to you in the past ... because now the higher power has paved way for your future ... AT LAST!! GOOD LUCK TO YOU MY FRIEND!!

    May 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. George

    Just ask anyone who's in prison, and they'll tell you that they're innocent.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ken margo

    This is why we should stop executing people. The criminal justice system is not perfect, so why have an punishment you can't reverse.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. lpn

    Just did a quick analysis of the database – Interestingly there were 3 areas of difference between blacks and whites – blacks were more likely to have used dna evidence for exoneration, more likely to have had official misconduct and significantly (over 2-1) more likely to have mistaken witness Identificaion

    May 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. coderjones

    Its not that they know there is a problem
    its the fact that the people in charge are not concerned about doing their job properly, to busy with being re-elected, or flat out "on the take"

    The problem is simple – corrupted system

    May 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. MNTaxpayer

    It's 2000 who were freed. No telling ho many thousands more innocent people are still behin fbars or havce already been executed. 2000 concerns me, especially when you look at the reasons for the false convictions.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. TonyMontana1

    No telling how many innocent people were executed, so 2000 is too much.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Currently working with the Innocence Project

    When you or one of your loved ones has gone through this you will say even one is too many. Some of us have spent our lives fighting to undo the injustice that has occurred to our family members. I will forever be grateful for the Innocence Project and all that they have done for us.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. NattyBlue

    I'm betting if you were one of the 2000 (or one of the many more who haven't been exonerated but need to be), you wouldn't think the number was miniscule.

    May 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BleedRed

    Nothing to worry about unless it was you

    May 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. lol

    @ Oh The Inhumanity

    get out of your basement, you stink

    May 21, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. NN

    It is not the number so much as the reasons. Perjury and prosecutor misconduct are wholly unacceptable excuses for a wrongful conviction, and brushing this atrocity aside with some simple statements about statistics doesn't get it. It is well-known that prosecutors deliberately withhold exculpatory evidence and that law enforcement officers "testilie." In fact, testilying is so prevalent, it has been seriously addressed in the legal research literature. The proposed remedy is to grill these people with a lie detector interrogation after each and every serious trial where a conviction has been obtained. If misconduct is discovered, they should barred from working anywhere near the law for life.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • CC

      I can't see how perjury is an unacceptable excuse-unless you're claiming that the prosecution knows that the perjurer lied. (It seems strange that I never see studies about wrongful I supposed to believe that only prosecution witnesses lie? That flies in the face of centuries of human experience.)

      May 21, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Question Authority

    Meanwhile, the war criminals on Pennsylvania Ave go about their business of enriching the international banking class at the expense of the rest of us.

    May 21, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. TexDoc

    I still stack up are accuracy rate against any country in the world. Our legal system is based on the premise that it's better to let 99 guilty go free than incarcerate 1 innocent. Few systems in the world work from that premise.

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