Democracy Dies in Darkness


Report: Wrongful convictions have stolen at least 20,000 years from innocent defendants

September 10, 2018 at 12:46 PM

Former death row inmate John Thompson speaks at a news conference in New Orleans in 2011, after the Supreme Court overturned a $14 million judgment that accused New Orleans prosecutors of withholding evidence in order to help convict Thompson of murder. Thompson spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which death row, before he was exonerated in 2003. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) will soon publish the second part of a study it commissioned of its database of all known false convictions in the United States since 1989. The NRE was kind enough to send me an advance copy. Among the highlights:

It’s impossible to know just how many people are wrongly convicted. Given that different states go about documenting these cases in vastly different ways, it’s also difficult just to tally everyone who has been exonerated. As the NRE concedes in its report, “There are many exonerations from past years that we don’t know about — we keep finding them when we have time to look — and the vast majority of false convictions are never recognized at all.”

It’s also worth pointing out that while the $2.2 billion paid out was certainly important to the people who received it, that figure isn’t likely to deter future wrongful convictions. The money almost always comes from public treasuries or at least from municipal insurers, not from the public officials responsible. For real deterrence, we’d need consistent accountability for police and prosecutors whose misconduct sends innocent people to prison. Police are protected by qualified immunity. Prosecutors are shielded by absolute immunity, even in cases where they have been shown to have committed egregious misconduct, such as manufacturing evidence.

In some states, such as Tennessee, the final say over whether someone has been completely exonerated lies with the governor, which effectively politicizes the decision. Some states (again, such as Tennessee) also don’t make compensation for wrongful convictions heritable. Once the wrongly convicted person dies, the checks stop coming. This is wrongheaded for many reasons, but here are two important ones: First, every year the state denies or delays recognizing an exoneration is a year the state doesn’t have to pay out compensation. And second, the law presumes that the families and children of exonerees aren’t harmed by the wrongful conviction.

In the end, all we can really say is that while $2.2 billion is a lot of public money, it’s a sum that’s inequitably distributed, unlikely to bring much change and should be quite a bit larger.

Read more:

Samuel R. Gross: The staggering number of wrongful convictions in America

The Post’s View: Preventing wrongful convictions

Letters to the Editor: How wrongful convictions occur

Clinton Ehrlich: How Jeff Sessions can offer justice to the wrongfully convicted

Radley Balko: What is ‘qualified immunity,’ and how does it work?

Radley Balko blogs and reports on criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. Previously, he was an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and a writer and editor for Reason magazine. His most recent book is "The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South."

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