Posts Tagged ‘National Registry of Exonerations’

On February 4, the National Registry of Exonerations published its yearly report for 2013.  The Registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, collects information on exonerations that have occurred since 1989.  The headlines on the new report (from the New York Times to NBC News to the Huffington Post) nearly all focused on one fact: 2013 saw 87 exonerations, the highest yearly total yet in any year since 1989.

This is a significant fact.  But two other things in the report got less notice and deserve more.

First, for most people, “exoneration” is synonymous with “DNA exoneration.”  This is how the world looks, whether on television (think of CSI and its many clones) or in any news source.  But this view doesn’t reflect the real world.  As the report points out, only about 21 percent of the exonerations in 2013 involved DNA (p. 6).  Despite the impression one gets from the media, this has always been the case; of all of the exonerations since 1989, 72 percent were not based on DNA.  And that difference seems to be increasing.  In both 2012 and 2013, non-DNA exonerations increased significantly, while DNA exonerations decreased (p. 12).

The other fact that many in the media did not notice: for the last two years, the percentage of all exoneration cases resolved with the cooperation of the police or prosecutors has risen dramatically.  In 2012, almost half of all the cases featured cooperation of the police or prosecutors in re-examining cases, leading to exoneration; the average percentage in all the years before (1989-2011) did not reach 30 percent.  The trend continued this year, with almost police or prosecutors cooperating in almost 40 percent of all exonerations.  (A few media organizations, such as Fox News, NPR, and the Christian Science Monitor, featured this fact in their headlines and/or stories.)

This is a very welcome and important development.  While some exonerations have always come about with law enforcement cooperation, this was not the trend.  Despite assurances from Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association that “we always did that, we just didn’t” have a name for the process (see his quote here), the data on the last two years do show a greater willingness to re-examine old cases than in years past.  According to Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, who edits the Registry, “the sharp, cold shower that DNA gave to the criminal justice system has made us realize that we have to re-examine” closed cases whether with DNA or not.  That idea appears to be sinking on a much wider basis.  And that is all to the good.


The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at University of Michigan and Northwestern, reported last week that in 2012, law enforcement cooperated in some way in a higher percentage of cases than in the past.  Does this mean less resistance of science by law enforcement?

The answer is that we can’t tell from this data.  But the report is worth looking at nonetheless.

Here is what the report says about law enforcement cooperation (I have removed the bullets, spacing, etc.):

In  2012 there was a dramatic increase in the number and the proportion of exonerations that prosecutors or police participated in obtaining.  Of the 63 exonerations in 2012, prosecutors or police initiated or cooperated in 34, or 54%. Over the past 24 years, prosecutors and police have cooperated in 30% of the exonerations we know about (317/1050). Last year for the first time they cooperated in a majority of exonerations, and the number of such cases is a large increase from the previous high (22 of 57 in 2008, or 39%).

This is all to the good.  But there are some aspects of the findings that counsel caution.  First, the author(s) of the report freely admit they don’t know why  this is happening.  It could have many causes.

This increase [in cooperation] may be due to a confluence of related factors: changes in state laws that facilitate post-conviction DNA testing, the emergence of Conviction Integrity Units in several large prosecutorial offices, and, perhaps, a change in how law enforcement officers view the possibility of false convictions at trial.

And just to be clear, it’s good that they admit that it’s not clear what the cause or causes could be.  Too often, those working with statistics take an opposite tack.

As far as resistance to science, however, the report may indicate that the cases where science and forensics matter most still do not get cooperation for law enforcement.  The first clue is that 57% of the exonerations in 2012 were homicide cases, and another 24% were sexual assaults — 81% in all.  These are the types of cases in which resistance science on eyewitness identification, interrogation, and  forensics can matter the most.  These cases also have the highest public profile.  And there, perhaps, is the rub: “Official cooperation is least common among exonerations for highly aggravated and publicized crimes – murders with death sentences and mass child sex abuse prosecutions – and most common among exonerations for robberies and drug crimes.”

The best way to answer whether this increased cooperation represents any lessening of the resistance to science would be to look at the individual exoneration cases for 2012: do they feature law enforcement cooperation over these science-based issues, or is it something else — for example, information on a witness interviews illegally withheld from the defendant in a previous trial?

Perhaps we will see that in the next report from the Registry.