Today, the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) released a report on the 139 exonerations that occurred in 2017. Between 1989 and 2017, the NRE documented 2,161 exonerations in the United States. In their report, the NRE outlines the major themes and characteristics of last year’s exonerations.
According to the report, there were less exonerations in 2017 than in 2016: a decrease from 171 to 139. This reduction can be explained by a drop in the number of cases from Harris County, Texas. For years, Harris County has increased the national number of exonerations as it reviewed a backlog of questionable drug possession cases. Since this backlog has largely been cleared, the number of national exonerations has decreased.
More than half of the exonerations that occurred in 2017 were due to “professional exonerators,” which include prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) and Innocence Organizations (IOs). An increasing number were the product of cooperation between CIUs and IOs.
“It makes you really wonder what would the feelings on exoneration be, and how many would we see, if there were more of these organizations,” said Barbara O’Brien, a law professor at Michigan State University and the editor of the registry.
In addition to the 139 exonerations listed in the registry, at least 96 individuals in Chicago and Baltimore were exonerated in “group exonerations.” These occurred after it was revealed that law enforcement was systematically framing individuals for drug crimes they did not commit.
Some of the report’s other key findings are listed below:
- Official misconduct – defined by the NRE as “police, prosecutors, or other government officials who significantly abused their authority or the judicial process that contributed to the exoneree’s conviction” – occurred in 84 of the 2017 exonerations.
- Seventeen exonerations were based in whole or in part on DNA evidence. DNA exonerations now account for 21% (459) of the exonerations in the Registry through 2017.
- Thirty-seven cases involved eyewitness misidentification.
- Twenty-nine exonerations involved a false confession.
- Perjury or a false accusation played a role in 87 of last year’s exonerations.
- On average, each exoneree was incarcerated for 10.6 years, totaling almost 1,500 years spent waiting to be freed.
- In 66 cases, no crime was actually committed, including over a dozen drug possession cases, 11 child sex abuse cases, and nine murder cases.