October 2nd is International Wrongful Conviction Day and a chance to raise awareness about the causes and costs of wrongful convictions. Although I believe strongly in our judicial system, it is a human institution and subject to human errors. As institutions filled with attorneys, law students, and teachers, law schools are uniquely positioned to illuminate the issues surrounding wrongful convictions, bear witness to the cost, and fight for the innocents caught up in the struggle for freedom.
Famed jurist William Blackstone once stated that “it is better that ten guilty per[s]ons e[s]cape than that one innocent [s]uffer.” How many innocents are suffering from wrongful convictions? While we do not have a way to track that, the National Registry of Exonerations attempts to collect and disseminate information on exonerations and their causes. Today, the Registry officially recognized 2,500 exonerations and 22,094 total years lost by exonerees. According to the Registry, African-Americans make up 13% of the population but 47% of the reported exonerations. The Registry also states that African-Americans are 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug possession.
What are the causes of wrongful convictions? According to the Registry, official misconduct was a contributing factor in 54% of wrongful convictions. Official misconduct can be things like forensic analysts falsifying test results, police threatening witnesses, police planting evidence, and concealment of exculpatory evidence. Perjury or false testimony was a factor in 58% of wrongful convictions. Mistaken or false identification was a factor in 28% of wrongful convictions. False or misleading forensic evidence was a factor in 23% of wrongful convictions and false confessions were a factor in 12% of wrongful convictions. You can learn more about the causes of wrongful convictions on the Ohio Innocence Project webpage on Educational Resources.
The costs of wrongful convictions are not just to the exonerees, their families, and crime victims. We all pay. One study, using DNA exonerations that also identified 109 true perpetrators, found that 337 additional offenses were committed and the authors of the study estimated that wrongful convictions may lead to more than 41,000 additional crimes. A 2016 report found that between 1989 and 2012 wrongful convictions in California alone cost taxpayers $221 million. Prosecutors have recognized these costs and have started forming Conviction Integrity Units. In 2018 there were 44 Conviction Integrity Units in the United States responsible for 58 exonerations. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office established its Conviction Integrity Unit in 2014.
Innocence organizations, such as the Ohio Innocence Project were involved in 86 exonerations in 2018. The Ohio Innocence Project got its start at University of Cincinnati in 2003. Under the direction of Mark Godsey and with the work a dedicated staff, hundreds of Cincinnati Law students and volunteers, the Ohio Innocence Project has exonerated 28 wrongfully convicted Ohioans, who collectively served over 525 years behind bars! You can learn more about the Ohio Innocence Project’s work on their webpage.