Misconduct by police and prosecutors has created an “innocence epidemic” on death row, according to a report published by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in mid-February.
Since 1993, DPIC has tracked the cases of individuals who were sentenced to death but legally exonerated later. The report defines legal exoneration as follows:
“Subsequently acquitted of all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row, either at retrial or by an appellate court determination that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to convict;
“Had all charges related to the crime that placed them on death row dismissed by the prosecution or had re-prosecution barred by the court in circumstances implicating the reliability of the evidence of guilt; or
“Been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence.”
Reviewing more than 9,600 death penalty cases since 1973, DPIC’s exoneration list stands at 185 individuals who have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to death.
These exonerations were from cases in 29 states and 118 counties, with 99 involving Black defendants, 67 white, 16 Latinx, 2 listed as “other race” and 1 Native American.
Florida had the most exonerations at 30, followed by Illinois (21), Texas (16), North Carolina (12), Louisiana (11), Ohio (11), Arizona (10), Oklahoma (10), Pennsylvania (10).
“One significant contributing factor in Florida’s exonerations is the practice of allowing death sentences without a unanimous jury recommendation for death,” the report said. “Of the 25 Florida death-row exonerations for which the jury vote is known, 22 involved judges who imposed the death penalty by overriding a jury recommendation for life or following a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death.”
The other 20 states all had seven or fewer exonerations, accounting for the remaining 54 cases.
Cook County, Illinois, has had 15 death-row exonerations since 1973, more than double the next highest county. All but one of the 15 exonerations in the Cook County were in cases involving people of color.
DPIC also analyzed the data to see if any trends or patterns emerged, determining that wrongful convictions are not random or accidental.
“They are overwhelmingly the product of police or prosecutorial misconduct or the presentation of knowingly false testimony,” the report said. “More likely than not, they involve a combination of the two.”
Of the 185 exonerations, a majority (69.2%, or 128 cases) involved “misconduct by police, prosecutors or other government officials.”
Such misconduct was most frequent in cases involving Black (78.8% of these cases) and Latinx (68.8%) defendants, with a lower level (58.2%) when the cases involved white defendants.
Perjury took place in 125 of the 185 cases (67.6%), with it being most common in cases involving Latinx (93.8% of these cases) and Black (70.7%) defendants.
A little more than half (100 cases or 54.1%) of the 185 exonerations involved both misconduct and perjury.
“Everybody’s worst fear about capital punishment is that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and executed,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC executive director, in a press release announcing the report. “But the more we learn about what actually happens in these cases, the worse the problem gets.”
The full report is available here.