There were 149 people exonerated in the United States last year after being wrongly convicted of crimes, a tally that included dozens convicted of murder and an uptick in people who had pleaded guilty or falsely confessed, according to a new report.
More than a third of the people exonerated were convicted of murder, says a report set to be released Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. A copy of this report was reviewed by The Post before publication.
All of the people exonerated last year were exonerated in more than half of the states in the country and, before being cleared, had served an average of more than 14 years in prison. Five of the people who were exonerated had been sentenced to death.
The number of people exonerated in 2015 broke a record the organization announced earlier, when it reported that 125 people were exonerated of crimes.
All told, the National Registry says it has logged 1,733 exonerations in the country since 1989. While exonerations involving DNA may grab more attention, they accounted for a little less than a fifth of last year’s exonerations and about a quarter of all the exonerations the registry has logged.
The growing frequency with which people have been exonerated of crimes comes amid a push to reform the country’s criminal justice system, an effort that spans political parties and follows years of harsh sentencing and explosive growth in the country’s incarcerated populations. It also means that each exoneration is less of a news event, the authors of the report noted.
“Not long ago, any exoneration we heard about was major news,” the report stated. “Now it’s a familiar story. We average nearly three exonerations a week, and most get little attention.”
The report attributes this surge, in part, to more prosecutors working to revisit convictions. (In one noteworthy case from 2014, a Texas man was exonerated through testing he didn’t realize was taking place.) In addition, the report says there are also more exonerations in cases involving false confessions or guilty pleas than there used to be.
In four of 10 exonerations last year, the people had pleaded guilty, largely in cases involving charges of drug possession. About a third of all exonerations last year involved these drug possession cases.
A remarkable number of these cases occurred in just one place: Harris County, Tex., home to Houston. More than a quarter of all exonerations last year involved people in Harris County who had pleaded guilty to drug possession, only to be cleared last year.
The registry’s report described how the Harris County District Attorney’s office had investigated cases after noticing a number of people who pleaded guilty to possessing illegal drugs, only for a crime lab — sometimes months or years later — to reveal that the materials these people had were not drugs after all. Some of the people who wound up pleading guilty likely agreed to plea bargains to avoid long prison terms, the report noted. (Quite a few thing can get mistaken for drugs, it turns out.)
In some cases last year, former inmates who had been exonerated before last year received compensation in 2015. Ricky Jackson, who spent nearly four decades behind bars in Ohio, was awarded more than $1 million by a judge. Two half-brothers in North Carolina had been released in 2014, but they could only be compensated last year after Gov. Pat McCroy (R) completed a lengthy review process and formally pardoned them.