Digging Deeper into the Latest Exonerations Report

By Christopher Zoukis

Last week, I summarized a report on the prisoners who were exonerated last year of major crimes for which they had been incarcerated, often for decades. Issued by the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations, the report is the latest annual summary tracking trends in this often ignored area. Today I want to go a little deeper into some lessons to be gained from a close reading of that report.

Long-tolerated bad science: An extraordinary 75 of last year’s 149 exonerations came in cases where it was belatedly discovered no crime had been proved. Most of these were drug cases where re-testing of seized material showed no controlled substance; trials had often used unreliable field tests, which have misidentified as drugs such substances as chalk, motor oil and Jolly Rancher candies.

Five cases where on review no crime had been proved were supposedly arson-homicides. They involved fatal fires which occurred 25 to 34 years ago, predating a landmark 1992 reference guide that professionalized investigation of fires and explosions. After that guide appeared, wouldn’t you think someone might have taken a second look at those convictions, this time using sound science to assess whether the fires were actually arson?

Similarly, the FBI made headlines last year by admitting its crime lab’s analysis of hair samples almost always overstated the reliability of such evidence, and the Justice Department is now looking at whether similar problems affect its analysis of other types of crime-scene evidence, making it likely exonerations will continue to mount in future years.

The human cost: Statistical summaries are usually not very exciting, and it would be easy for most readers to assume, if the 149 exonerations set an all-time annual record for the number of prisoners exonerated of crimes, that mistaken charges or wrongful conviction of innocent defendants must not really be all that common or troublesome problems. Everybody makes mistakes, right? So if the police, prosecutors, judges or juries manage to make a bad call once in a while, well, stuff happens.

Let’s recall the 149 prisoners exonerated last year spent an average of about fourteen-and-a-half years imprisoned for convictions that turned out to be unmerited. In the aggregate, that’s over 21 centuries of imprisonment. Maybe someone should have been looking harder, or working faster, to determine whether these 149 people should have been locked up?

Second, an appendix to the report includes brief write-ups of seven exonerations that punch home the outrageous miscarriages of justice that sent innocent defendants to prison for as long as 34 years. It’s impossible to read these heartbreaking stories without coming to the firm conclusion that we must establish mechanisms and procedures to undo such life-shattering mistakes, and to keep them from recurring.

Finally, to his credit, the report’s author warns readers not to assume wrongful convictions are at worst a minor problem; instead, he notes a growing public awareness it’s a “substantial, widespread and tragic problem.” He estimates tens of thousands of wrongful convictions occur each year.

Doesn’t that say to you there needs to be a systematic way to review the way convictions are won, to make sure they’re not sending – or have already sent ­– innocent defendants to prison, or even to Death Row?

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com