Record number of 2013 exonerations reveals danger of false convictions

Many people in Marietta may view wrongful convictions as an unlikely outcome of criminal proceedings, considering how carefully crimes are investigated and tried. However, the exonerations of people wrongfully convicted of criminal charges serve as evidence that these mistakes do occur. The record number of U.S. exonerations reported in 2013 serves to remind people in Georgia of the serious risk of false convictions.

Exonerations on the rise

According to The New York Times, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded more than 1,300 exonerations between 1989 and January 2014. The 87 exonerations reported last year was the greatest number reported during any of those years.

The rate of exonerations involving DNA evidence has decreased in recent years, which suggests that investigators and prosecutors have adopted better practices regarding the use of this evidence. Still, some troubling patterns are apparent in the exonerations reported in 2013. The New York Times and U.S. News report the following facts on last year's exonerations:

  • Almost half of the cases exonerated involved serious charges, such as murder. Tragically, one person who had been wrongfully convicted of murder was sentenced to death before he was exonerated.
  • In almost one-third of the exonerations, people were convicted of crimes that never actually occurred. One woman was found guilty for the death of her son, which occurred in an accident while the boy was playing.
  • Altogether, 17 percent of the exonerees pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. In some cases, the accused were offered milder sanctions in exchange for a plea deal. Duress may have played a role in other cases. The woman accused of murdering her son pled guilty after authorities threatened her and withheld food and water during a 27-hour interrogation.

These findings highlight some of the key risk factors for false convictions. According to the Innocence Project, false convictions frequently involve eyewitness mistakes, false confessions, poor forensic or investigative practices and even deliberate misconduct on the part of investigators or prosecutors. These factors can affect almost anyone facing criminal charges, regardless of the specific circumstances of the case.

Wrongful conviction rate unknown

The real rate of wrongful convictions is unknown, since the rate of exonerations does not necessarily reflect the rate of wrongful convictions. According to U.S. News, the people exonerated last year spent 12 years imprisoned, on average, which suggests that uncovering false convictions can be a slow process and that many people who have been wrongly convicted in recent years may still be imprisoned.

According to U.S. News, estimates of the overall wrongful conviction rate vary from 2.3 to 5 percent of the prison population. With the National Institute of Corrections reporting a Georgia inmate population of 55,075 as of December 2011, this means that as many as 2,750 people incarcerated in Georgia could be facing the consequences of crimes they did not commit.

Anyone facing criminal charges in Georgia should appreciate the serious risk of false convictions. Speaking with a criminal defense attorney is an essential first step toward mitigating this threat.