“Official misconduct damages truth-seeking by our criminal justice system and undermines public confidence,” said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law Professor Emeritus and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “It steals years — sometimes decades — from the lives of innocent people.”
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million people behind bars, many of them people of color. Rates began their sharp upward climb in the 1980s and 1990s, as Democrats and Republicans alike used thinly veiled racial rhetoric to push tough-on-crime policies. The numbers have started to dip only in the last decade.
Gross, lead author of the report, said it is the most comprehensive analysis of its kind.
He and his team researched individual cases that led to exonerations going back 30 years, from the initial investigation to the trial, coding their findings into a database.
The real numbers of misconduct may be higher, he said, because most wrongful convictions are never discovered. And even among exonerees, it is impossible to catch all cases of official misconduct, as much remains hidden.
Police were slightly more likely to commit misconduct than prosecutors, in 34% of the cases compared with 30%, the report showed. In federal cases, however, prosecutors were five times as likely to commit misconduct; in federal white collar crime exonerations prosecutors committed misconduct seven times as often as police,in 65% of the cases compared with 9%.
Overall, exonerated Black defendants were slightly more likely than white defendants to be victims of official misconduct — 57% to 52%. That difference was much larger, however, for drug crimes, 47% to 22%, and for murder cases, 78% to 64%, especially those with death sentences, 87% to 68%.