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A report released in September by the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) revealed that out of 2,400 cases studied in the past three decades, 54 percent of the cases involved misconduct by police and/or prosecutors that led to wrongful convictions. The NRE has examined 2,619 exonerations since 1989, per their website.
The top of the website reads, “MORE THAN 24,350 YEARS LOST.”
The 218-page report cites common examples of misconduct and examples of cases where misconduct has been attributed to false imprisonment. The NRE manages an archive of all known exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, which has only amounted to 2,663 exonerations. The report focuses on cases up to February 2019 and limits misconduct to government officials who contributed to the false convictions of people later exonerated.
How common is misconduct, what defines misconduct and who is impacted?
Per the report, the misconduct occurred evenly to the detriment of defendants of all genders but disproportionately along racial lines. A higher number of cases of misconduct involving Black male defendants versus their white male counterparts was reported. A common example of the unevenness was low-level drug offenses in comparison to white-collar crimes.
The report also indicated that 80 percent of death penalty cases that were exonerated were the cause of official misconduct. This finding was attributed to the high-profile attention that death penalty cases receive, thus a more thorough investigation into case details uncovers more examples of misconduct.
Five common categories of misconduct were listed in the report including witness tampering, misconduct during interrogation, fabricated evidence, concealing evidence and misconduct during trial. When misconduct was discovered, the officials who engaged in the unlawful behavior were only disciplined in 17 percent of the cases, with police officers being punished four times more than prosecutors.
All of this begs a few questions about the legal system: In thirty years of court cases, how is there less than 3,000 documented cases of exoneration? Why is the number of disciplined officials so minimal when their actions have destroyed so many lives?
What exactly does a fair shake at justice look like specifically for Black Americans if this level of misconduct is known but not adequately attended to?
About the Author
Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.