As of Feb. 3, 2014, both state governments and the U.S. government have exonerated 1,304 innocent prisoners since 1989, according to a new report from the National Registry for Exonerations. And 87 of them were freed in 2013 alone — the highest number ever recorded.
Contrary to what people may think, DNA testing isn’t behind most of these exonerations. Instead, judges and prosecutors have become increasingly willing to reconsider old convictions even without new DNA evidence, potentially because of growing awareness about wrongful convictions.
“The trend I’ve seen the most obviously is more prosecutors and judges are less freaked out about a prisoner’s potential innocence and more willing to look into the matter now,” University of Michigan law professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations Samuel Gross told Business Insider.
When DNA evidence became admissible in court in 1985, it shocked the system, especially in cases of sexual assault, according to Gross. Because DNA evidence has freed some inmates with lengthy sentences, people might assume testing leads to most exonerations today.
But there have always been more non-DNA exonerations than DNA exonerations. The gap has actually increased over time, as this graph shows:
Although we see a rapid increase in the number of total exonerations since 2011, the number of DNA exonerations (blue line) has dropped steadily for the last three years, while the number of non-DNA exonerations (red line) spiked during the same period.
One major factor, according to the National Registry for Exonerations, is driving the increase in non-DNA convictions: greater cooperation from law enforcement, especially under often ignored circumstances like those without biological evidence, cases with light sentences, and judgements based on plea bargains.
Not everyone agrees that greater cooperation from law enforcement is a recent development though.
“We always reviewed big cases, multiple murders or high-profile cases,” Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association told NPR. “What you’re seeing now is that it’s institutionalized — it’s given a name, probably a line item on a budget in a large office — and that’s good as well.”
Regardless of reasons for the increase in exonerations, the type of crime also plays an interesting role. Consider the chart below:
Of the 87 exonerations in 2013, 17%, a record number, occurred in cases in which the defendants pleaded guilty, according to the report. These circumstances most likely arise during plea bargains, when defendants plead guilty in exchange for reduced sentences. For some time now, the vast majority of defendants across the U.S. end up pleading out, Gross pointed out.
Naturally, legal resources first go to prisoners facing execution (8% of exonerations, according to the report) or life in prison. As a result, the great majority of known exonerations apply to murder and rape, “the most serious common crimes of violence with the harshest sentences,” according to the report.
Gross also noted exonerations in murder and rape cases decreased for the first time in 2013.
Researchers also considered timing when interpreting the stats. The charts below shows the average time an exonerated prisoner will spend behind bars based on his or her crime.
As you’ll see from the data, inmates exonerated in 2013 spent an average of about 12 years in prison. That means in recent years prosecutors and judges became more willing to look into cases more than a decade old.
“This is really a journey into the past — around the turn of the century,” Gross explained.
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