Naked City

Many Convicted, Few Cleared

During the National Innocence Conference held at UT two weeks ago, Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School discussed his recent study of inmate exonerations in the United States. Gross and his students reviewed all reports of exonerations between 1989 and 2003 in the United States. They used a very conservative measure of "exoneration," limiting the study only to persons whose "convictions were nullified by official acts by governors, courts, or prosecutors because of compelling evidence that they were not guilty of crimes for which they had been convicted" (thereby excluding, for example, the 39 Tulia defendants, whose convictions were tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct). By that strict standard, they found 328 exonerations – 145 cleared by DNA testing, 183 by other means.

Texas was third in the nation for number of exonerations – according to the study, 28 innocent people have been released from Texas prisons. That number does not include the Tulia defendants, or people like the late Henry Lee Lucas, because their cases did not fit the study's stringent guidelines. (Lucas was granted clemency by then Gov. Bush following confirmation that he had not committed the murder for which he was sentenced to death; since his sentence was commuted to life in prison, under Gross' definition he was not exonerated.) Nor does it include people like Josiah Sutton, released from prison over a year ago after being cleared by DNA testing, but not yet pardoned.

Most startling were findings that almost 90% of the juveniles exonerated are African-American or Hispanic, and most were convicted, in part, based on false confessions. Gross also found that a disturbing number of exonerations occurred in cases in which the defendant was sentenced to death. He found that "death row inmates number about ... 1% of the prison population, but [account for] 22% of the exonerated." This leads to two possible explanations – that wrongful convictions are simply more likely to be discovered in murder cases because more resources are spent investigating them, or that wrongful convictions are in fact more likely to occur in murder cases (perhaps due to prosecutorial zeal in capital cases).

Either explanation is appalling. If murder cases are indeed more carefully investigated, there may be thousands of people wrongly convicted of other, less serious crimes; or, if more wrongful convictions occur in murder cases, then it is also more likely (as many people believe) that innocent people have been and will be executed. Overall, the authors comment, "It is clear from these data that false convictions are much more common than exonerations, and that the vast majority are never caught." Gross' full report is posted at www.law.umich.edu/NewsAndInfo/exonerations-in-us.pdf.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Death Penalty, Samuel Gross, exoneration, innocence project

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