New National Database Shows Trends in Wrongful Convictions Across the Country

Thomas McGowan (center), Dallas County exoneree, is s subject of our May 10 feature about crime victims and wrongful convictions.
Thomas McGowan (center), Dallas County exoneree, is s subject of our May 10 feature about crime victims and wrongful convictions.

As most people who follow the news know by now, since Craig Watkins became Dallas County district attorney in 2007, 33 local men have been exonerated of crimes they didn't commit. But what does this number mean in the context of the rest of the nation, and what are the common issues that lead to wrongful convictions?

Those questions are more easily answered as of yesterday with the release of a database of exoneration cases nationwide, including a detailed report explaining common causes of wrongful convictions. Dallas County, where innocent prisoners have been freed at a fast clip for the last several years, is outdone by only Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), which has 78 exonerations to Dallas' 36 since 1989.

In Dallas and the rest of the nation, so many convicted felons have been exonerated that the sample size is large enough to identify major common factors that contribute to wrongful incarcerations, including those cases in which the innocent remain imprisoned. The database includes 873 exoneration cases, and the report, a joint undertaking by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, points out that these cases are just the obvious results of systematic problems that still leave others behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Among the common factors in wrongful convictions, one especially striking statistic surfaced. Mistaken eyewitness identification and official misconduct almost equally factored into wrongful conviction cases nationwide (43 and 42 percent, respectively).

"Eyewitness testimony is just inherently unreliable and yet it is sufficient by itself to sustain a conviction," says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school. Official misconduct, he says, can mean anything from flawed police interrogation procedures to a prosecutor withholding evidence in support of someone's innocence.

Warden stresses that exonerations are just a window into a much larger problem, one that's impossible to quantify. "There's no way, in the vast majority of cases, to ever find out that they didn't turn [evidence] over," he says.

The report further explains why the 873 listed cases only begin to crack open the larger problem.

In any event, the exonerations we know about tell us something about the ones we have missed. Eighty-three percent of the exonerations in the Registry were in rape and homicide cases, which together constitute about 2% of felony convictions, but the problems that cause false convictions are hardly limited to rape and murder. For example, in 47 of the exonerations the defendants were convicted of robbery compared with 203 convictions for rape, even though there is every reason to believe that there are many more false convictions for robbery than for rape ... Why so comparatively few robbery exonerations? Because DNA evidence is the factual basis for the vast majority of rape exonerations, but DNA is hardly ever useful in proving the innocence of robbery defendants.

Even so, of all exoneration cases included in the report, only 37 percent were exonerated by the presence of DNA evidence.

The report also notes that there are nine times as many exonerations for death sentence cases as there are for all other homicide convictions. "The reason for that is that those cases get more scrutiny ... more post-conviction scrutiny," Warden says. Perhaps more shocking is his belief that a wrongful conviction is more likely in a capital murder case than a robbery case.

"The system doesn't have the pressure, doesn't feel the pressure from the public, either real or perceived, to solve that crime," he says of robberies.

"Our hope is that these data will be used to bring about reform," Warden says. Some of his suggestions: mandatory recording of interrogations, review of cases that rested on junk science, improved eyewitness identification procedures and open-file policies in district attorneys' offices. The latter gives defendants access to prosecutors case files, and the policy is already in place in Dallas.

"Of course that won't cure all," Warden says. It's just a start -- a start rooted in data detailing exactly where the problems lie.

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