Wrongful Convictions and Why the Death Penalty Sucks
Over the last 23 years more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted individuals in the United States have been exonerated, according to a new study by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of law.
The schools also launched the National Registry of Exonerations, an incredible website where a detailed and regularly updated list of every known exoneration since 1989 can be viewed. As of now it includes 891 people, the largest assembled database of exonerations to date (1,200 exonerates are excluded from the list because not enough information is known about their cases).
Of the 873 exonerees analyzed in the study, researchers found that they spent over 10,000 years behind bars with an average of more than 11 years each, with about a quarter of exonerees facing the death penalty. Exonerations were overwhelmingly rape and murder cases where the leading causes for wrongful conviction included perjury, false eyewitness identification, and misconduct by officials. In 80 percent of sexual assault exonerations, the leading cause for conviction was false eyewitness identification, 53% of which involved black men who were accused of raping white women. Unsurprisingly, about half of all exonerated defendants were black, likely reflecting the disproportionate number of African Americans locked up in the U.S.
While there is no telling how many innocent people are serving prison sentences, the authors of the study are clear that there are more wrongful convictions than exonerations. For example, last week I wrote about the 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna (you can read it here), a poor hispanic man whose trial was plagued by shoddy eyewitness testimony and serious misconduct by the authorities. If not for the diligence of the academics and lawyers who investigated Deluna’s case years after his execution, no one would know that Texas likely executed an innocent man. Of course, it’s now to late to fix it since DeLuna is dead.
So, what does this say about our criminal justice system? For starters, it shows that it’s far from perfect and in desperate need of reforms, which raises the question: Why do we continue to sentence people to death despite knowing that the system is flawed? And for those who are exonerated, how do we make up them?
I addressed this in my latest piece at Salon, where I tell the story of Glenn Edward Chapman, a black man who spent 15 years on death row in North Carolina for murders he didn’t commit. But since his 2008 exoneration, Chapman hasn’t received a penny from the state that tried to kill him, despite North Carolina being one of the 27 states with statutes that provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted. That means in 23 states around the country, the exonerated are offered nothing for their loss of freedom, reputation, family, friends, income, and emotional stability.
Chapman isn’t alone in his struggle. The National Registry of Exonerations study includes the following about life after exoneration for the 873 falsely convicted individuals analyzed:
Ten innocent defendants were exonerated after death, even though it is highly unusual to reconsider the guilt of defendants who are dead. Many more left prison with disabling injuries or diseases. Some died within a year or two of release, sometimes at their own hands. Others returned to prison for new crimes that they did commit. Almost all irretrievably lost large portions of their lives – their youth, the childhood of their children, the last years of their parents’ lives, their careers, their marriages.