The report by the National Registry of Exonerations, through the University of Michigan Law School, detailed 125 known exonerations of innocent defendants, an increase of 34 from 2013.
While it did not break down the exonerations by race, the Innocence Project—perhaps the leading organization that works to free innocent prisoners, primarily through DNA evidence—reports that 67 percent of the exonerated men it had a hand in getting released were Black.
Almost weekly it seemed that men in general, Black men in particular were standing on courtroom steps, breathing free air for the first time in many years. Atlanta Blackstar, in a three-part series two weeks ago, told the first-person story of Herman Atkins, exonerated after 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
“You just cannot understand the deep-rooted distrust of the justice system that comes with what exonerated men go through,” said Atkins, who is in law school in San Diego. “The pain and psychological damage you experience are equally devastating. I’m doing fine now, but it’s not certain you will ever recover from it.”
In November, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgemen of Cleveland were released after 39 years in prison—39!—for aggravated murder and robbery based on the account of a 12-year-old boy in 1975. The witness recanted his story, saying he never saw the men or the crime and that he was shown photos of Jackson and Bridgeman and told to identify them as the culprits.
Texas had the highest number of exonerations last year with 34, and was largely responsible for the 37 percent increase over 2012 and 2013.
The spike was driven by 33 exonerations in Houston’s Harris County, 30 more than the number in 2013. The county’s district attorney focused on reviewing cases in which “drugs” that defendants pled guilty to possessing tested negative for presence of illegal substances in crime lab analyses.
Worse, there were 58 cases where men were sent to prison and a crime was not even committed. In other words, the exoneree was convicted for an alleged crime that was actually an accident or suicide or a fabricated crime that did not happen. More than 90 percent of all the drug-crime exonerations were “no crime” cases.
Other states that recorded the most exonerations were New York with 17; Illinois and Michigan with seven each; Ohio with six; North Carolina with four; and Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee with three each.
As for death row inmates, six were exonerated after spending more than 30 years in prison.
The report attributed the significant increase in exonerations to the work by the country’s 15 prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs).
“The big story for the year is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence,” Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, who runs the project and is the report’s author, said in a statement. “And many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.”