Number of Exonerations Hits Record High, But Black Defendants Still More Likely to be Wrongfully Convicted

Thousands of Black men like Patrick Waller, who was exonerated in 2008 after being wrongly convicted of aggravated robbery and kidnapping, have been jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. Photo by Toni Guiterrez/Associated Press.

While the number of criminal exonerations hit a record high for the third year in a row, a recently released report found that African-Americans are still much more likely to face wrongful convictions than whites.

The report, published by The National Registry of Exonerations on Tuesday, March 7, studied the link between race and wrongful convictions in the U.S., revealing that a large majority of people formally exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit are African-American. Additionally, the majority of more than 1,800 innocent suspects framed by police during widespread law enforcement scandals between 1989 and now happen to be Black.

“Judging from the cases we know, a substantial majority of innocent people who are convicted of crimes in the United States are African-Americans,” the report read.

In their analysis, researchers examined the three types of crime that produce the largest numbers of exonerations — murder, assault and drug offenses. The report indicated that innocent Black people are a whopping seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. Researchers attributed the stark disparity to the high rate of homicides that occur in predominately African-American communities. They wrote that while innocent defendants who are convicted and later exonerated don’t contribute to the homicide rate, they are instead “deeply harmed by murders committed by others.”

Moreover, the report showed that African-American inmates convicted of murder are 50 percent more likely to be innocent compared to convicted murderers of other races. The wrongful convictions that sometimes lead to the exoneration of Black defendants also are 22 percent more likely to have involved police misconduct than in cases with white defendants.

When it comes to sexual assaults, attacks on white women by African-American men are a small portion of all sexual assaults in the U.S., yet they comprise half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications. Researchers said witness misidentifications don’t fully explain the racial disparities in sexual assault exonerations, however. According to the report, most convictions that result in exonerations are plagued with implicit racial bias, racially charged police misconduct and/or explicit racism.

Extensive research has shown that white Americans use drugs at about the same rate as Black Americans, yet the latter are five times more likely to go to prison for drug possession. Innocent Black people are also 12 times as likely to be convicted of a drug crime than innocent whites. But why? Researchers say this disparity is due to the simple fact that police often enforce drug laws more vigorously against African-Americans compared to whites.

Since 1989, law enforcement officials also were found to have framed thousands of innocent defendants for drug crimes they didn’t commit; a majority of those defendants happened to be Black.

“Why do police officers who conduct these outrageous programs of framing innocent drug defendants concentrate on African-Americans? The simple answer: Because that’s what they do in all aspects of drug-law enforcement,” the report read. “Guilty or innocent, they always focus disproportionately on African-Americans. Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the Black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful.”

On the brighter side of things, the National Registry of Exonerations report revealed that there were a record number of exonerations in 2016, 166 to be exact. Researchers say this is the highest number of exonerations since the analysis began in 1989 and double what it was in 2011. The national registry now lists a total of 2,000 exonerations since 1989.

“The room for growth is essentially unlimited,” the researchers concluded. That’s because the number of innocent defendants who are cleared is “a function of the resources that are available to re-investigate and reconsider cases on the one hand and the level of resistance to doing so on the other.”


Back to top