Better Late Than Never?

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A record-breaking 87 prisoners were exonerated in the US last year:

Today’s report from the National Registry of Exonerations counts more than 1,300 exonerations in the past 25 years. Among the long term trends they discuss:

* Twenty-seven (27) of the 87 known exonerations that occurred in 2013 — almost one-third of the total number for the year — were in cases in which no crime in fact occurred, a record number.

* Fifteen (15) known exonerations in 2013 — 17 percent — occurred in cases in which the defendants were convicted after pleading guilty, also a record number. The rate of exonerations after a guilty plea has doubled since 2008 and the number continues to grow. …

Last year, 40 people convicted of murder were exonerated, including one person who’d been sentenced to death. Murder and sexual assault convictions make up the majority of exonerations. The report points out that that may be largely because the meager resources available to review old cases tend to focus on the crimes with the most severe penalties. That would indicate that there may be a whole universe of innocent prisoners convicted of lesser crimes who simply don’t have anyone to fight for them.

Balko has a more upbeat view:

The fact that we just had a record year for exonerations – and more than a decade after the introduction of modern DNA testing – is a good sign. If nothing else, that we’re exonerating more people means there are more resources being devoted to looking for these cases. It means that courts are more open to reconsidering old cases. It’s also a testament to the fact that, in some parts of the country, police and prosecutors are actively participating in task forces charged with seeking out the wrongly convicted.

Andrew Cohen thinks there are “two relevant facts worth noting that are not synthesized into the exoneration report’s analysis”:

The first is that not all states are equal when it comes to prioritizing exonerations. Some simply care less about justice for the wrongfully convicted than others. Some are spending money on programs designed to ferret out inaccurate trial results while others are not. The registry that has given us this report may be national, in other words, but the remedies in place surely are not. Congress could help rectify that. So could the Supreme Court. So could the executive branch. Maybe this year.

The second point that needs to be made in the shadow of the report is that some states today are moving against the flow. Lawmakers in at least two states, Alabama and Tennessee, are seriously considering measures that would tighten appellate deadlines in capital cases, making exonerations harder to achieve.

(Graph via The National Registry of Exonerations’ “Exonerations in 2013”)