A record 125 people were exonerated last year, dozens of whom had pleaded guilty to the crimes for which they were convicted, according to a report released this week.
The number easily topped the previous record, which was set when 91 people were exonerated in each of the previous two years, said the new report from the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law.
One of the people exonerated last year was Michael Phillips, who was convicted of raping a teenager in 1990. Phillips was exonerated and released last year thanks to DNA testing (in an unusual case, because he was not actively seeking exoneration at the time).
He was one of many people freed thanks to conviction integrity units run by prosecutors, which the National Registry’s report said were “a major reason for the record number of exonerations.” Four out of 10 of these exonerations came through the efforts of such units, which have steadily grown over the last five years (there were two in 2009 and 15 last year).
“They reflect a recognition that erroneous convictions are an important problem, and that prosecutors – the central and most powerful actors in the criminal justice system – should address this problem systematically,” the report said.
This was part of a larger overall number of exonerations that came with law enforcement either initiating or helping with the efforts:
Phillips was also one of 47 people exonerated last year who had pleaded guilty to a crime. That number is also a record, according to the National Registry, and it came almost exclusively from people who were convicted of crimes relating to drugs.
These exonerations happened across the country, cropping up in 27 states as well as the District of Columbia.
Six of the people who were exonerated had been sentenced to death, each of them spending at least three decades in prison.
This finding is particularly important to consider as the country faces a dwindling but still extant capital punishment system; the number of executions and death sentences have dropped nationwide, with just a handful of states putting inmates to death.
A majority of Americans support the death penalty, but that support has dropped in the past two decades. This drop in support has less to do with the high-profile issues involving lethal injection and more to do with the wrongful convictions that were overturned, experts say.
As Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told me last year, DNA testing and exonerations “exposed the fallibility of the system.” Still, there were more than 3,000 people on Death Row as of Oct. 1, according to the center.