National Registry of Exonerations: 885 Wrongful Convictions Since 1989

Ronald Reno, right, and his girlfriend Debbie Brown hug Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project, after a press conference about the exoneration of Reno, wrongly convicted of a crime which resulted in his “third strike.” (SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS / Nhat V. Meyer)

Check out the article by Tracey Kaplan for the Mercury News. The piece highlights the findings of the new “National Registry of Exonerations”, which is tracking the number of exonerations across the country. The report, which is attached in the article link, allows viewers to examine exonerations by state and county numbers. A striking finding is the differences among a common geographic regions, such as the Bay Area. In Santa Clara County, there has been 10 exonerations, yet zero in neighboring Alameda County.

A new national report on the number of people falsely convicted of a serious crime reveals a baffling statistic about the Bay Area — 10 people have been exonerated in Santa Clara County since 1989, while none have in Alameda County.

Does that mean Alameda County, with a higher crime rate, has never thrown the wrong person in prison, or at least hasn’t admitted it?

Probably not, according to the report released Sunday by the National Registry of Exonerations. The authors, who teach at Midwestern law schools, say the registry is a work in progress, and they’re asking the public to report any unlisted exonerations via an interactive database.

“One of the reasons we set up this registry is to beat the bushes for cases,” said Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and editor of the registry.

Even so, the study already has found that since 2000, exonerations have averaged 52 a year nationwide — one a week.

The study defines an exoneration as when a defendant who was convicted of a crime was later relieved of all legal consequences of that conviction through a decision by a prosecutor, a governor or a court after new evidence of innocence was discovered.

David Angel, director of the conviction integrity unit of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, said it’s useful to look at the big picture the registry has begun to outline.

So far, the registry lists more than 885 cases since 1989, when the first exoneration using DNA evidence occurred. DNA helped resolve 40 percent of the cases in the study.

At least 1,170 other convicted defendants were cleared in 13 “group exonerations” after scandals in Los Angeles and elsewhere revealed police had deliberately framed innocent people, mostly for drug and gun crimes.

“This study confirms that the overwhelming number of convictions are accurate and just — but they are not always,” Angel said of the study, which notes that 2.3 million people are in prison in the United States. “We all know there are problems with the system, so if you want to improve it, you need good information.”

To boost the reliability of eyewitness identifications — a major cause of wrongful convictions — every police department in Santa Clara County recently started videotaping or recording most witnesses as they pick out a suspect from photos or a live lineup.

Gross said he believes more exonerations have come to light in Santa Clara County than in Alameda County and the rest of the Bay Area for two main reasons: the presence of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University’s law school and a vigilant press that has exposed overzealous prosecution and misconduct.

San Mateo, Contra Costa and Monterey counties each had one case. Twenty have turned up so far in Los Angeles County. Kern County, with 20 exonerations, is a special case, Gross said. From 1984 through 1986, at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of interrelated cases. In most of these exonerations, the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their stories.

Several factors contributed to false convictions in homicides, rapes, robberies and other crimes, including perjury or false accusation (51 percent), mistaken eyewitness identification (43 percent), official misconduct (42 percent), false or misleading forensic evidence (24 percent) and false confession (16 percent).

The numbers add up to more than 100 percent because multiple factors are frequently involved.

Defense lawyers also were clearly at fault in at least 104 cases, the study found. But the authors believe many more of the exonerated defendants would not have been convicted in the first place if their lawyers had done good work.

Gerald Uelmen, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the Santa Clara University School of Law, said the report shows little progress has been made since he was executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which examined ways to guard against wrongful convictions.

“The bottom line is we are not doing much better in protecting the innocent,” he said, “despite all the evidence uncovered in the past 10 years of wrongful convictions.”

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