Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Exoneration registry documents causes of false convictions but not their frequency

There was no DNA to clear Anthony Graves but that doesn't mitigate his innocence. Innocent people set up by corrupt cops in Tulia and the Dallas "Sheetrock"/fake-drug scandal could have never been cleared if DNA were the only means to exoneration, but those cases resulted in false convictions nonetheless.

The big news surrounding the innocence movement this week is a new national "exoneration registry" compiled by the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, which attempts to include non-DNA cases in the count of "innocence" cases. The total tops 2,000, including 873 individual cases as well as 13 major police scandals that falsely netted 1,170 other people. (According the the excellent registry website, the total of individual exonerations bumped up to to 891 since the report was published.) Ten of the Texas exonerees listed had been sentenced to death, out of 101 death-row exonerations identified nationally over the 23 year period.

As with DNA exonerations, though, these cases should be viewed as essentially statistical sample through which one may analyze causes of false convictions, but they do not reliably inform us about their frequency. "No matter how tragic they are, even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about," said the report (pdf).

The Texas Tribune has compiled a list of the individual exonerations on the registry from Texas, and two of the thirteen mass exonerations listed - the Tulia drug stings and the Dallas "Sheetrock" scandal - were from Texas. I don't understand why a third famous Texas drug scandal in Hearne wasn't included: It's not like nobody knew about it, the episode was chronicled in a feature film directed by Tim Disney called American Violet. Most of the mass exoneration cases described were for drug offenses, whereas most of the individual exonerations were for murder or sexual assault. Once you start to include false convictions from the drug war the numbers add up quickly.

Notably, not every Texan on the list of the exonerated is eligible or innocence compensation. Former death row inmate Clarence Brandley made the list, though the governor's office insisted that the exoneree compensation law (often billed as the most generous in the nation) be written specifically to exclude him, state Sen. Rodney Ellis said on the Senate floor when the legislation passed in 2009. Meanwhile, Brandley's fellow death-row alumnus Kerry Max Cook is not on the list, but dispositive DNA evidence should add him to the registry before long, pending the outcome of ongoing habeas proceedings. That to say, this is a list that can, and will be nitpicked, both by folks who think other cases should have been included and those who think some of those on the list "really did it," which happens all the time.

OTOH, looking at the data by jurisdiction, it's clear the registry number under-represents the real exoneration total: "The 873 exonerations in the Registry come from 43 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 19 federal districts, and the military. They are very unevenly distributed by state, and especially when broke down by county. This suggests we are missing many cases – both innocent defendants from jurisdictions where exonerations are vanishingly rare, and exonerated defendants whose cases have received little or no public attention."

For example, does anybody really believe there wasn't a single false conviction in San Antonio between 1989 and 2012? There are many who would disagree. IMO that absence of Bexar County exonerations speaks more to a lack of diligence and openness by local officials to reviewing such cases than it does the perfection of Bexar County's decidedly imperfect process. For example, DA Susan Reed has never established a post-conviction review unit like her counterparts in Dallas and Harris Counties to vet possible innocence claims.

Such shortcomings are why this data may only be usefully viewed as a sample, the way a pollster may question 800 people and estimate the opinions of the public at large. This registry allows one to explore the hows and whys of exoneration, but still not the $64 question "How often?" (Grits has discussed this issue in detail and I won't reiterate the arguments here, which have been the subject of much scholarly debate, but Grits' best guess would be in the 1.5% range which, if accurate, would mean more than 2,000 innocent people are presently locked up in Texas prisons.)

One factor that tamps down the numbers in the registry, I can say for a fact having slogged through the Tulia exonerations (back when I worked for Texas ACLU) and more recently having watched nearly miraculous DNA exonerations, often resulting in men freed after 15, 20, 25, even 30 years: The only innocent people who get out are the ones who fight, persistently, over a long period of time, or have someone on the outside doing it for them. And even then, you have to get lucky: I could point to ten different moments during the Tulia saga when, if this or that serendipitous development had not gone defendants' way, those folks would still be in prison. I've little doubt Jeff Blackburn and Vanita Gupta, the attorneys spearheading that exoneration effort, would readily agree.

There's a huge amount of raw luck involved in most exonerations, even in DNA cases: Was the evidence retained? Can it be found or was it lost? Was it contaminated? Is there enough left to test? Kerry Cook went looking for a piece of evidence to test in his 35-year old case and one of the detectives had taken the murder weapon home as a "souvenir." The combination of luck, smarts, persistence, and often media attention that result in exonerations amount to a near-perfect storm that cannot be replicated for every workaday innocence case - certainly not if there are as many of them as published estimates suggest.

Another interesting tidbit from the report that jibes with my experience: One reason most exonerations seem to happen in the most serious types of cases - besides the fact that those are where biological evidence is likely to have been saved - may be that, "With a few exceptions, exonerations take a long time. The overall average is 11.9 years from conviction to exoneration, 13.0 years from arrest," according to the report. So folks with shorter sentences for lesser crimes may just get out in a few years before anybody figures out what's happened to them.

Grits has not yet had a chance to review the report (pdf) or the website carefully and may have more to say on the subject once I've done so, but in the meantime here are links to some MSM coverage of the document:


Unknown said...

Imagine. Just for a moment, close your eyes and simply imagine. You are a young 24 yr. old black man living in Chicago, standing at the precipice of your adult life with a promising future and career. You are at your Sister's home eating pizza and watching a basketball game while, wholly unbeknownst to you, a murder is taking place 23 miles away. A murder that, in the blink of an eye, will alter your life and destiny. Forever. Your life, as you know it, is over.

A case against you is being manufactured and you are on trial. With every passing moment reality is slipping away giving into an unfathomable living nightmare that is unfolding before your very eyes. Shock begins to set in as you witness the peripheral players in this horrific nightmare conspiring to convict you of an unthinkable crime. A crime that very few human beings are capable of committing. At warp speed, your life is spiraling out control .... In the following days, weeks, months and years, you are systematically and effectively silenced. Your body is numb while your mind races trying to prove that you are not a killer. You are effectively being buried alive. And nobody can hear your silent screams. Just Imagine....living your worst nightmare.

This is the story of Lathierial Boyd.


ckikerintulia said...

Scott, we struggled together during the Tulia fight. Just a personal note: today I visited friends in the Tulia nursing home. A young woman, an empoyee of the nursing home, came in to attend to their needs. She was one of the Tulia exonerees. What if she had not been exonerated, and had that conviction on her record. She could not work in a nursing home, or in lots of other places. She would be free by now, more than a decade after her wrongful conviction; that is, unless her inability to support herself had not led her back to prison. I'm so glad she has that job, and gives loving care to my friends. I'm so glad I had some part, along with you and dozens of compadres, in her and the other Tulia victims, in their exoneration. Everybody is better off that they are not in prison, and that they can provide for themselves.

Praise the Lord for a victory for justice!

And praise the Lord that Maggie Lee's short life continues to do good!

Rev. Charles

Skip said...

Grits- The USA Today link on this post links to the Kerry Max Cook post?

This is a fascinating study and I hope it gets maximum media attention. The focus is on rape/murder. If you simply extrapolate that to the workaday crimes, you come up with a staggering number of false convictions. Interesting the bit about drug crimes and false confessions. A poster on another blog likened the system to the state holding a gun to your head and demanding a confession, "You admit guilt, take 5 years or we pull the trigger".

I am heartened by some of the recent court decisions, the Feds even threw a punch recently. The information is taking its toll. Yes the individual's stories are sad and the size of the problem staggering, but there is some positive action!

Thanks for the great work Scott!

Lisa said...

Imagine This: You're a 29yo woman walking to your car. Two men drug you, kidnap you, rape you, and then leave you on the side of the road. You're left to decide what next?

You go to the police, go through the agony of the rape kit - through forensic photographs. You think to yourself that maybe doing this will help another woman - maybe these bastards will be caught.

And they never are...

There is no justice, only silent screams, a lifetime of fear and anxiety disorders. Years and years spent in my own prison - not wanting to leave my home because I cant - cant face the fears outside.

I empathize with men who are wrongly convicted of a sex crime they didnt commit - because the real perpetrator is still out there - still in my nightmares. And here perfectly good men sit and suffer unknown trials for something so horrific. Its unimagineable to me how that must make the wrongly accused feel.

Maybe it makes them feel like me?

When do I get out of prison?

Grandmom said...

I believe that the number of wrongly convicted is closer to 20%. The book, Texas Death Row chronicles the info on all executed prisoners since 1982, including their last statements, on the gurney, moments from meeting their maker. Prior to 1990, before the Court of Criminal Appeals became conservative, none of those executed protested their innocence. Obviously, some, like Carlos De Luna, were innocent, but were too overcome to speak. However, since 1990 the percentage of those protesting their innocence has increased to nearly 20%. Could most of them be telling the truth? This during the same time that the number of CCA overturned convictions on appeal has fallen from 36% to 3%. This also during the same time that the Legislature has stubbornly refused to pass criminal justice reforms that would have prevented many wrongful convictions. How can we continue to support executions in the face of such obvious injustice? I have many friends on death row, most of whom would agree that the number of wrongly convicted prisoners, both death row and general population, is close to 20%.

JJ said...

Just a quick tally reflects that a full 10 of the 87 exonerations in the State of Texas over this 23-year-period were of persons who had received a sentence of death. How many is too many...and when will the general public take an interest in this issue? Even for those who believe that death is an appropriate punishment, surely no one wants to see even one innocent person executed...right?

Another interesting comparison, I think, comes when these numbers are broken down by race: 11% of exonerees have a listed race of Hispanic, 28% as White, 40% as Black, with smaller percentages for the remaining classifications. A comparison of arrest/conviction/exoneration rates with the representation of these respective races in the general population would be an interesting (and tedious!) study...I'm pretty sure we could all guess what the results would be.