Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, is the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.
I edit the National Registry of Exonerations, which compiles stories and data about people who were convicted of crimes in the United States and later exonerated. The cases are fascinating and important, but they wear on me: So many of them are stories of destruction and defeat.
Consider, for example, Rafael Suarez . In 1997 in Tucson, Suarez was convicted of a vicious felony assault for which another man had already pleaded guilty. Suarez’s lawyer interviewed the woman who called 911 to report the incident as well as a second eyewitness. Both said that Suarez did not attack the victim and, in fact, had attempted to stop the assault. A third witness told the lawyer that he heard the victim say that he would lie in court to get Suarez convicted. None of these witnesses were called to testify at trial. Suarez was convicted and sentenced to five years.
After these facts came to light in 2000, Suarez was released. He had lost his house and his job, and his plan to become a paralegal had been derailed. His wife had divorced him, and he had lost parental rights to their three children, including one born while he was locked up. Suarez sued his former lawyer, who by then had been disbarred. He got a $1 million judgment, but the lawyer had no assets and filed for bankruptcy. Barring a miracle, Suarez will never see a penny of that judgment.
The most depressing thing about Suarez’s case is how comparatively lucky he was. He was exonerated, against all odds, because his otherwise irresponsible lawyer had actually talked to the critical witnesses and recorded those interviews despite failing later to call them at trial.
Suarez served three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The average time served for the 1,625 exonerated individuals in the registry is more than nine years. Last year, three innocent murder defendants in Cleveland were exonerated 39 years after they were convicted — they spent their entire adult lives in prison — and even they were lucky: We know without doubt that the vast majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are never identified and cleared.
The registry receives four or five letters a week from prisoners who claim to be innocent. They’re heartbreaking. Most of the writers are probably guilty, but some undoubtedly are not. We tell them that we can’t help; we are a research project only, we don’t represent clients or investigate claims of innocence. Fair enough, I guess, but some innocent prisoners who have been exonerated wrote hundreds of these letters before anybody took notice. How many innocent defendants have I ignored?
Innocence projects do handle these cases, or at least some of them. They receive many times more letters than we do. I’ve spoken with lawyers who do this work, and who have successfully exonerated dozens of defendants. Most of them have clients who remain in prison despite powerful evidence of their innocence that no court will consider. And they all know that there are countless innocent defendants hidden in the piles of pleas for help that they will never have time to investigate.
How many people are convicted of crimes they did not commit? Last year, a study I co-authored on the issue was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows that 4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25.
Death sentences are uniquely well-documented. We don’t know nearly enough about other kinds of criminal cases to estimate the rate of wrongful convictions for those. The rate could be lower than for capital murders, or it could be higher. Of course, in a country with millions of criminal convictions a year and more than 2 million people behind bars, even 1 percent amounts to tens of thousands of tragic errors.
The problem may be worst at the low end of the spectrum, in misdemeanor courts where almost everybody pleads guilty. For example, in July 2014 Wassillie Gregory was charged with “harassment” of a police officer in Bethel, Alaska. The officer wrote in his report that Gregory was “clearly intoxicated” and that “I kindly tried to assist Gregory into my cruiser for protective custody when he pulled away and clawed at me with his hand.”
The next step in the case would normally be the last: Gregory pleaded guilty, without the benefit of a defense lawyer. But Gregory was exonerated a year later after a surveillance video surfaced showing the officer handcuffing him and then repeatedly slamming him onto the pavement.
In the past year, 45 defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to low-level drug crimes in Harris County, Tex. They were cleared months or years after conviction by lab tests that found no illegal drugs in the materials seized from them.
Why then did they plead guilty? As best we can tell, most were held in jail because they couldn’t make bail. When they were brought to court for the first time, they were given a take-it-or-leave-it, for-today-only offer: Plead guilty and get probation or weeks to months in jail. If they refused, they’d wait in jail for months, if not a year or more, before they got to trial, and risk additional years in prison if they were convicted. That’s a high price to pay for a chance to prove one’s innocence.
Police officers are supposed to be suspicious and proactive, to stop, question and arrest people who might have committed crimes, or who might be about to do so. Most officers are honest, and, I am sure, they are usually right. But “most” and “usually right” are not good enough for criminal convictions. Courts — judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, sometime juries — are supposed to decide criminal cases. Instead, most misdemeanor courts outsource deciding guilt or innocence to the police. It’s cheaper, but you get what you pay for.
We can do better, of course — for misdemeanors, for death penalty cases and for everything in between — if we’re willing to foot the bill. It’ll cost money to achieve the quality of justice we claim to provide: to do more careful investigations, to take fewer quick guilty pleas and conduct more trials, and to make sure those trials are well done. But first we have to recognize that what we do now is not good enough.