Criminal Justice

Exonerations were at record high in 2013, report says

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Eighty-seven convicted defendants were exonerated in the United States last year, a record high, according to a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations.

DNA played a role in about a fifth of the exonerations last year, part of a gradual decline in DNA exonerations since 2005, according to the report (PDF) on known exonerations. The decline in DNA exonerations is a positive sign, according to the report author, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross.

“I think this reflects that prosecutors and judges have become more sensitive to the dangers of false accusations and are more willing to consider that a person is innocent even where this is no DNA to test,” he tells the Guardian.

Other findings, highlighted in a press release:

• Twenty-seven of the exonerations last year were in cases in which no crime occurred, a record number.

• Fifteen of last year’s exonerations occurred in cases in which the defendants pleaded guilty, a record number.

• Thirty-three exonerations last year were obtained at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement.

Among those exonerated was Missouri death-row inmate Reginald Griffin, bringing total death-row exonerations to 143 since 1973.

The exonerations occurred several ways—through pardons based on evidence of innocence; through dismissed charges, generally based on a prosecution motion; through acquittals at retrial based on new evidence; through “certificates of innocence” issued by courts; and through posthumous exonerations.

For all exonerations in the registry, the most common reasons for wrongful conviction were perjury or false accusation (56 percent); official misconduct (46 percent); and mistaken eyewitness identification (38 percent).

The New York Times also has coverage of the report.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

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