The U.S. set a record for exonerations in 2016 for the third consecutive year.
The majority of the 2,000 people in the United States formally exonerated of crimes they never committed are black, according to a new report examining the relationship between race and wrongful convictions.
In addition, the majority of more than 1,800 innocent defendants framed by law enforcement since 1989 in widespread police scandals are African American, says the report, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” published Tuesday as a companion to the annual National Registry of Exonerations.
“Judging from the cases we know, a substantial majority of innocent people who are convicted of crimes in the United States are African Americans,” the report declares.
The report examines exonerations for defendants who had been wrongly convicted of murder, sexual assault and drug crimes since 1989.
While African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, half of all defendants exonerated for murder are black ― a rate seven times that for innocent whites. These wrongly convicted black Americans spent on average more than 14 years in prison, the report says.
Many more are innocent, but not yet cleared. “More often than not, they will die in prison,” researchers wrote.
The false murder convictions of black defendants were 22 percent more likely to involve police misconduct than those of white defendants. On average, African Americans who were exonerated waited three years longer in prison before their release than whites in similar circumstances.
The major reason for the disproportionately high number of black murder exonerations is the high homicide rate in the black community, researchers say. But those who are wrongly convicted did not contribute to the murder rate, and instead are “deeply harmed by murders of others,” the report says.
A black person imprisoned for sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white inmate convicted on similar charges. Blacks also received much longer prison sentences than whites who were exonerated of sexual assault charges, spending an average of 4.5 years longer in prison before being cleared.
Researchers found that a major cause of this disparity was mistaken identification by white victims.
“It appears that innocent black sexual assault defendants receive harsher sentences than whites if they are convicted, and then face greater resistance to exoneration even in cases in which they are ultimately released,” the report reads.
While black and white Americans use illicit substances at about the same rate, African Americans are about five times more likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites. And innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people, according to the report.
The primary reason for the drug crime disparity is that police enforce drug laws more vigorously against the black community, according to the report. Blacks are more frequently “stopped, searched, arrested and convicted ― including in cases in which they are innocent,” researchers write.
“Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor who authored the race report and is senior editor of the national registry.
A Record Year
There were 166 exonerations in 2016, an average of three per week ― the most since the analysis began in 1989 and double the number in 2011, the National Registry of Exonerations annual report finds. It was the third consecutive year with a record number of exonerations.
“The room for growth is essentially unlimited,” the researchers conclude. That’s because the number of innocent defendants who are cleared is “a function of the resources that are available to reinvestigate and reconsider cases on the one hand, and the level of resistance to doing so on the other.”
The report found a range of factors leading to wrongful convictions, including including government misconduct, false guilty pleas by innocent people, and situations where it was later determined that no crime was committed.
The National Registry of Exonerations now lists 2,000 exonerations since 1989. On average, those who were cleared had served almost nine years in prison. Some had been on death row. Others were younger than 18 when they were convicted, or had intellectual disabilities.
Even after they are cleared and released, those exonerated often get little assistance as they adjust to freedom, update job skills and re-enter society. Thirty-one states, Washington, D.C., and the federal justice system offer some compensation, but the majority do not receive anything meaningful.