In most known exonerations, the wrong person was convicted of a crime that did occur. In a rapidly growing minority, however, the defendant was convicted of a crime that never happened – such as the recent exoneration of Jacob Trakhtenberg (profiled below).
No-Crime Exonerations by Type of CrimeNo-Crime cases now account for 22% of known exonerations. The largest numbers occur among child sex abuse cases (109), followed by homicides (39), adult sexual assaults (34) and drug cases (28).
But exonerations for homicide and sexual assault are far more common than those for child sex abuse and drug crimes. If we consider No-Crime exonerations as a proportion of all cases, we see a very different picture: They account for three quarters of child sex abuse exonerations, just over half of the drug cases, but only small minorities of exonerations for homicide or sexual assault.
Percentage of No-Crime Exonerations, by Crime
Child Sex Abuse 75% (109/145) Drug Offenses 55% (28/51) Sexual Assault 14% (34/238) Homicide 7% (39/583)
Causes of No-Crime ExonerationsNo-Crime exonerations are most common in cases where the occurrence of a crime can be faked by a single person – most often the alleged victim.
In most child sex abuse exonerations, for example, the alleged crime was reported days, weeks, months or even years after the event – too late to find identifying physical evidence – and there were no witnesses other than the complainant. Likewise, in a small minority of adult sexual assault exonerations, the alleged victim lied. In most she said that consensual sex with the defendant was rape; in a few she accused the defendant of rape to cover up consensual sex with another man.
In most drug crime exonerations, by contrast, the drugs were planted on the defendant by a witness, a police informant or a police officer.
Homicides are different. They account for nearly half of all exonerations, but only 7% of them are No-Crime cases. These are almost all mistakes: cases in which a suicide or an accidental death was mistaken for a homicide – including 8 false arson-murder convictions, and 10 exonerations in “Shaken Baby Syndrome” homicide cases.
Not surprisingly, 76% of No-Crime exonerations included perjury or a false accusation. In at least 37% of these exonerations, one or more of the accusers recanted their accusations after conviction.
A Dramatic Increase in NumberNo-Crime exonerations are fairly evenly spread across time since 1989, but we know of many more that we used to.
In a 2005 Report on 340 exonerations in the United States – the most complete compilation at the time – fewer than 4% were cases where no crime had occurred. The first National Registry Report included 873 exonerations, from 1989 through February 2012. Of these, 15% were No-Crime cases. As of today, 22% of the 1,242 exonerations in the Registry are No-Crime cases, including 38% of the cases added since March 2012.
In general, No-Crime exonerations get less attention than those in which someone else committed the crime for which the exoneree was convicted. One of our main goals is to identify and study exonerations that are not well known. The dramatic increase in the number of known No-Crime exonerations reflects an initial success of that effort.
No-Crime exonerations can be located on the Detailed View of the Registry database, by sorting the column labeled “Tags.” Cases that are tagged “NC” – “No Crime” – are those in which the exoneree was convicted of a crime that never occurred.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
'One out of Five Known Exonerations is for a Crime that Never Happened'
Here's a fascinating tidbit from the latest newsletter of the National Exonerations Registry with the same title as the headline of this post: