National

A Long Road to Freedom:
Wrongful Convictions

By Morgan Roberts
October 31, 2021

Thousands of people have been wrongly convicted across the country in a system defined by official indifference to innocence and error.

For the past five years, the rate at which innocent people are being exonerated has been higher than ever. In 2016 alone, 182 people were exonerated, the highest amount in history. This means that on average, more than 3 exonerations occurred each week in 2016. The number of exonerations has generally increased since 1989, the first year in the National Registry of Exonerations’s database. There are 2,883 individual exonerations listed in the registry as of October 30, 2021.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many convicted defendants may actually be innocent. In attempt to answer this question, Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is co-founder and senior editor of the National Registry, published a paper in 2014 that estimated 4.1% of people on death-row are innocent while only 1.8% of them have been exonerated.

These estimates are based on a mathematical model that takes into account the number of death-row inmates who would have been exonerated had they not been executed, died in prison or had their sentences reduced. (Life-sentence cases receive far less scrutiny and are therefore less likely to be overturned than death-row cases.) Gross stands by those figures today.

For the broader population of convicts who are not on death row, Gross can only say that the 2,883 vindicated people in the National Registry represent a small fraction of those who are actually innocent.

That means many thousands of people could have served time or are in prison today for crimes they did not commit while the real criminals remain free. And for the few who do get exonerated, it’s unlikely that their lives just go back to normal.

“Even those who are eventually freed have lost large parts of their lives—their youth, the childhood of their children, the last years of their parents’ lives, their careers, their marriages,” Gross says. “False convictions wreak havoc in every direction.”

Top 5 Longest Incarcerations of People Found Innocent

Last Name First Name State Years Incarcerated Contributing Factors

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations

How Long Are Wrongfully Convicted People in Prison?

On average, these people served 14 years in prison before exoneration and release, but some people are in prison much longer. Above are the five longest periods of incarceration of people who were ultimately proven innocent.

Total U.S. Inmate Population 1989-2021

Data provided by The Federal Bureau of Prisons

Federal Inmate Population Trends

At the end of 2018, there were about 6.4 million people in the federal prison system including those on parole and probation, a 12.7% decrease from 2007, when the inmate population reached its peak. This trend of decarceration occurs after a 180% increase in inmate population between 1989 and 2007.

Amount of Exonerations Per Year 1989-2021

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations

Annual Exoneration Trends

Experts say the increase in rate of exonerations can be explained, in part, by a growing trend of accountability in prosecutorial offices around the country. Twenty-nine counties, including Chicago’s Cook County, Dallas County and Brooklyn’s Kings County have adopted second- look procedures and special review units that are tasked with looking into questionable convictions.

What Crimes Were These People Accused of?

Historically, the convictions with the best chances of being overturned were those that got repeatedly reviewed on appeal or those chosen by legal institutions such as the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. These cases tended to be high profile cases with defendants who received severe sentences. Most exonerees were imprisoned for murder charges while most U.S. inmates were imprisoned for drug crimes, including possession and sale.

Offenses of U.S. Inmates vs. Exonerees (%)

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations and The Federal Bureau of Prisons

Sentences Imposed on U.S. Inmates vs. Exonerees (%)

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations and The Federal Bureau of Prisons

How Long Were Their Sentences?

In keeping with the chart above that shows the offenses of all inmates vs. exonerees, most exonerees were accused of extreme crimes and were sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, life, life without parole, or death. However, a very small portion of all U.S. inmates are sentenced to more than 20 years. Most U.S. inmates are sentenced to 1-10 years in prison, as most inmates have not committed violent or heinous crimes.

Sex Assigned at Birth

Total U.S. Inmate
Population 2021

Data provided by The Federal Bureau of Prisons

1989-2021 Exonerated
Individuals

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations

How Does the Sex Assigned at Birth of Exonerees Compare to All Inmates?

The above pie charts show the percentage of male and female inmates vs. the percentage of male and female exonerees based on sex assigned at birth. These percentages align reasonably closely, so it can be concluded that the sex of the inmate is not strongly correlated with an inmate's likelihood of being exonerated.

Age When Convicted

Total U.S. Inmate
Population 2021

Data provided by The Federal Bureau of Prisons

1989-2021 Exonerated
Individuals

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations

How Does the Age of Exonerees Compare to All Inmates?

The above pie charts show the age breakdown of all U.S. inmates vs. exonerees based on how old they were when convicted. An overwhelming majority of U.S. inmates were 30 or older while a miniscule amount were below the age of 18. Majority of exonerees, however, were under 30 years old with a much larger amount being under 18.

Race

Total U.S.
Population 2021

Data provided by The American Council on Education

Total U.S. Inmate
Population 2021

Data provided by The Federal Bureau of Prisons

1989-2021 Exonerated
Individuals

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations

Racial Disparities

The above pie charts illustrate racial disparities among U.S. inmates and exonerees as compared to the racial breakdown of all Americans. Racial bias is particularly stark in cases where numerous defendants were exonerated together. Separate from the individual exonerations listed in the National Registry, an additional 1,840 defendants have been cleared in 15 “group” exonerations across the country since 1989. The great majority of these groups were framed for drug cases that never happened and, likewise, a great majority of these groups were predominantly black.

Other racial biases are evident in Gross’s analysis. For instance, sexual assaults by black men on white women are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the U.S., but they make up half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentification.

Other disturbing trends reinforce the widely-documented racial bias that blacks face at every step of the system. They are more likely to be targets of police misconduct. They receive harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes. And, for violent crimes like murder and sexual assault, they spend several years longer in prison before exoneration.

Number of Exonerations by U.S. State 1989-2021

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations

Where Do Exonerations Occur?

The above heatmap shows the amount of exonerations in each U.S. state from 1989-2021. Each of the 50 states is home to at least 2 exonerations, but Texas, Illinois, New York, and California stand out as the states with the most exonerations, each having at least 100 more exonerations than the state with the next highest amount.

Many point to changes in places like Harris County, Texas, home to the city of Houston, where the county’s conviction review unit has totaled 187 exonerations, or 10.5% of all exonerations in the U.S., since 2010, the first full year it was in operation. Harris County identified a problem that is likely systemic across the U.S. and has actively spent the last two years trying to right its wrongs.

It started in 2014, when a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman reached out to the district attorney’s office to ask about something he had noticed: a steady stream of years-old drug convictions were being overturned. In many of these cases, the so-called drugs were actually legal substances like over the counter medications that had been initially misidentified by faulty field test kits.

All U.S. Exoneration Cases 1989-2021

Last Name First Name State Year Exonerated Contributing Factors
Last Name First Name State Year Exonerated Contributing Factors

Data provided by The National Registry of Exonerations