June 11, 2012
Chicago's Real Law Blog
Illinois is #1 (in wrongful convictions)
By: Michael Helfand
A recent report shows that Illinois has exonerated more defendants than any other state in the country – more than 100 in the past 20 years or so. Illinois overturned these convictions because the defendants were eventually proven innocent, even after some spent decades in prison for the crimes they didn’t commit.
The high concentration of exonerations in our state is alarming, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we have more wrongful convictions than other states. Perhaps we just have a higher rate of figuring it out. It’s estimated that Northwestern’s laws school, through its Center on Wrongful Convictions, is responsible for a third of Illinois’ exonerations. Who knows. Either way, it’s a scary number.
The report is from the National Registry of Exonerations (compiled by Northwestern law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and University of Michigan’s law school). The registry includes about 900 exonerations since 1989, with more being added as they become known. Many low-profile exonerations aren’t known because no centralized records have been kept. The list does not, obviously, include those currently in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
The report shows that most wrongful convictions are for murder or sex crimes. Common reasons for wrongful convictions are witnesses who incorrectly identified the defendant, either mistakenly or on purpose. Other causes include false confessions, misleading forensic evidence and police misconduct, according to the report.
It says less than half of the exonerations involve DNA evidence, which surprised me since those are the ones you hear about. What’s particularly disturbing about DNA exonerations is the amount of time they take. The report says it takes an average of 18 years from the time a defendant is convicted until the time they are exonerated by DNA evidence. On average, defendants spend 11 years in prison before being exonerated.
Not included in the data are a shocking number of people who have been exonerated after major police scandals that involved planting evidence on innocent defendants. The report says there have been 1,170 of these exonerations nationwide, arising out of 13 major police scandals.
The exoneration registry, as it is now, is likely just a snapshot of the true number of wrongful convictions in this state and in the country. It’s a start, and the hope is that looking at all these cases together will lead to some sort of prevention in the future. But it’s bittersweet, considering all the innocent people it’s too late to help.