The National Registry of Exonerations has released an annual report that shows wrongfully held prisoners lost 1,849 year of their lives, before being freed in 2021.
In total, 161 individuals were exonerated last year for drug possession and trafficking as well as murder. With 75 exonerations in total, nearly 50% of those wrongfully convicted for murder were involved. Average exonerees spent 11 years in prison before they were released.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Registry—a product of the law programs at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and the University of California, Irvine’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society. Although the registry was established in 1989, it has been using exoneration records to determine trends and total numbers for 10 years. More than 3,061 exonerations have been recorded by the Registry since 1989. Together, these prisoners have lost almost 27,000 years of their lives before they were exonerated.
The Registry’s most recent annual report showed that official misconduct in the police or prosecutors played an important role in explaining why innocent people are kept behind bars for so many years. Last year saw 102 exonerations. More than three quarters of murder cases which led to exoneration in 2021 were attributed to misconduct.
Report notes that misconduct is now a bigger part of faulty convictions. This can be attributed to an increase in drug-related exonerations and increased awareness by the public as well the courts regarding bad police behaviour.
Most of these drug cases were based on false accusations or perjury, mostly by officers who frame innocent persons. This increase is also due to courts becoming more conscious of other forms of official misconduct such as forensic Fraud and inability of police and prosecutors disclose exonerating evidence.
Because of the police corruption, Illinois was the state with 38% more exonerations. Still innocent persons are still being found in Illinois by corrupt Chicago police officers led by Sergeant. Ronald Watts. Illinois’ first “mass exoneration”, which saw 15 people falsely convicted on the basis of misconduct committed by Watts in 2017, was held in Illinois. The case is currently being investigated. A further 14 men were also exonerated in 2021 for their convictions due to Watts and his officers’ corrupt conduct.
The Registry will take note of another exoneration that occurred in New York City in 2021. The allegations against Joseph Franco, a former New York Police officer, were perjury and misconduct charges. In the end, prosecutors dropped or exonerated more than 450 of those defendants. These numbers don’t appear in the 2021 statistics, but they are an example of how greater awareness of police misconduct is drawing public attention to the terrible excesses and harms associated with the war on drugs.
The Franco cases also highlight the critical role prosecutors—when they actually care about ethics and innocence—can play in exonerations. According to the 2021 Report, about 20% of exonerations in the Registry were performed by conviction integrity units within prosecutors’ offices. Their role has been vital in getting courts involved in exonerations and releasing innocent prisoners. In January, Virginia’s new Attorney General took office and dissolved the entire convict integrity unit. People worried about whether there would be less interest to release innocent prisoners. Jason Miyares, Attorney General, stated that he had actually expanded the unit and called it the “Cold Cases, Actual Innocence and Special Investigations Unit”.
Miyares, however, has pulled support for the 78-page report of Mark Herring (his predecessor as Attorney General) that was meant to exonerate Terrence Richardson. Richard was sentenced involuntary to death and drug crime. Although he was not found guilty of the 1998 murder by a Federal Police Officer, Richard was sentenced to life imprisonment for his guilty plea in involuntary Manslaughter.
Richardson’s attorney filed a petition of actual innocence before the court in an attempt to have Richardson’s conviction for manslaughter thrown out. Herring, the unit that supported it, has also joined the process. After taking office Miyares reversed the decision of the state and now claims that Richardson is ineligible because he pleaded guilty for the manslaughter.
It’s an example of how prosecutors can get in the way of exonerations—using the complicated rules of the court to keep people behind bars even if there’s evidence that they’re innocent. In May, an appeals court will decide if Richard is eligible to join the exonerees.
The Registry noted that, in contrast to what is happening in Virginia right now, units with conviction integrity are being recognized elsewhere. Six units had their first exonerations in 2021. One unit was created in Orleans Parish, Louisiana. It is a positive trend. Although it’s easy to despair about all those years wasted in these reports, more prosecutors show that they are willing to go back and fix these errors.