Criminal Justice

'Professional exonerators' contributed to more than 60% of last year's exonerations

  • Print

A smiling man holds a t-shirt with the logo of the Northern California Innocence Project as he is surrounded by news cameras with ballons in the background

Ricky Davis holds up a shirt with the logo of the Northern California Innocence Project after his release from custody at the El Dorado County Jail in Placerville, California, on Feb. 13, 2020. Davis spent about 15 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of second degree murder. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Conviction integrity units and innocence organizations are contributing to an increasing number of exonerations over time, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

The two kinds of groups—“professional exonerators” that re-examine questionable convictions—played important roles in 61% of the 129 exonerations that occurred in 2020, according to the National Registry’s annual report.

The number of conviction integrity units is growing. Eight new ones opened in 2020 and five have opened so far this year, bringing the total to 79, according to the report and a press release. Among them are new statewide units in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Other statewide units are in Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey and New York.

“Every county that gets a new conviction integrity unit—or where an old one gets active— sees a jump in exonerations,” said the report’s lead author, Michigan State University law professor Barbara O’Brien, in a press release. “If that happened across the country, we’d probably see a thousand exonerations a year, maybe more.”

The registry’s report also found:

  • Defendants exonerated in 2020 spent a total of 1,737 years in prison after conviction, an average of 13.4 years lost per exoneree.
  • Official misconduct occurred in at least 87 exonerations, a little more than two-thirds of the cases. The most frequent misconduct was a failure to disclose exculpatory evidence by police or prosecutors, which occurred in 79 exonerations.
  • Post-conviction DNA testing played a role in 19 exonerations, amounting to about 15% of the total.
  • 65% of people exonerated in 2020 were Black.
  • The states with the most exonerations in 2020 were Illinois (22), Michigan (20) and Texas (15). Illinois’ total is driven by misconduct by a corrupt police officer who planted drugs on people who refused to pay bribes.

The registry defines an exoneration as a declaration of factual innocence by a government official or agency, based at least in part on new evidence of innocence. The declaration can be in the form of a complete pardon, an acquittal in a retrial, or a dismissal of all charges by a court or a prosecutor.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California at Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

See also:

ABA Journal: “Amy Breihan has dedicated her career to helping juvenile lifers seek parole”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.