There is a kind of perverse irony attached to the advocacy group National Registry of Exonerations.
On the one hand, the organization likely welcomes public recognition and acknowledgment of the important work that it does. On the other hand, that very recognition underscores the continued existence of a compelling and urgent American problem.
That is this: the incarceration of a sizable number of people in jails and prisons across the country who have been convicted of crimes they never committed.
That outcome in any instance is a frightening proposition, given the country’s historical commitment to fair play and the sanctity of individual freedom. That any person should be falsely convicted and languish behind bars mocks the cherished criminal justice notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”
The National Registry exists for one simple and narrow reason, namely, to spotlight the horror of wrong “justice” outcomes and minimize their future occurrence. The group’s website notes its mission “to provide comprehensive information on exonerations of innocent criminal defendants in order to prevent future false convictions by learning from past errors.”
Sadly, and as readily confirmed by vetted statistics, those errors continue to occur in a tragic and glaring way.
Key data linked with criminal exonerations in 2020
So-called “conviction integrity units” and “innocence organizations” (groups across the country – often governmental in nature – that re-examine select convictions and are growing in number) were busy in 2020. The National Registry annual report cites the key role they placed in more than 60% of 129 exonerations that occurred during that year.
A few words on that exoneration number: It reportedly doesn’t come close to accurately gauging the number of innocent people actually locked up across the United States. The report’s lead author states that if more conviction integrity units operated nationally, “we’d probably see a thousand exonerations a year, maybe more.”
Here are some key report findings relevant to last year:
- Average time lost in prison per exoneree totaled 13.4 years
- Post-conviction DNA emerged as important evidence in many exonerations
- Nearly 90% of all exoneration cases featured a material level of official misconduct (e.g., failure to disclose evidence, evidence planting/tampering)
An authoritative Denver criminal law legal source duly stresses that the presumption of innocence “is one of the bedrock principles of our free society.”
Ideally, innocent people should never have to be exonerated of wrongdoing. They should never be convicted of a crime in the first place.