Causes of No-Crime Exonerations
No-Crime exonerations are most common in cases where the occurrence of a crime can be faked by a single person – most often the alleged victim.
In most child sex abuse exonerations, for example, the alleged crime was reported days, weeks, months or even years after the event – too late to find identifying physical evidence – and there were no witnesses other than the complainant. Likewise, in a small minority of adult sexual assault exonerations, the alleged victim lied. In most she said that consensual sex with the defendant was rape; in a few she accused the defendant of rape to cover up consensual sex with another man.
In most drug crime exonerations, by contrast, the drugs were planted on the defendant by a witness, a police informant or a police officer.
Homicides are different. They account for nearly half of all exonerations, but only 7% of them are No-Crime cases. These are almost all mistakes: cases in which a suicide or an accidental death was mistaken for a homicide – including 8 false arson-murder convictions, and 10 exonerations in “Shaken Baby Syndrome” homicide cases.
Not surprisingly, 76% of No-Crime exonerations included perjury or a false accusation. In at least 37% of these exonerations, one or more of the accusers recanted their accusations after conviction.
A Dramatic Increase in Number
No-Crime exonerations are fairly evenly spread across time since 1989, but we know of many more that we used to.
In a 2005 Report
on 340 exonerations in the United States – the most complete compilation at the time – fewer than 4% were cases where no crime had occurred. The first National Registry Report
included 873 exonerations, from 1989 through February 2012. Of these, 15% were No-Crime cases. As of today, 22% of the 1,242 exonerations in the Registry are No-Crime cases, including 38% of the cases added since March 2012.
In general, No-Crime exonerations get less attention than those in which someone else committed the crime for which the exoneree was convicted. One of our main goals is to identify and study exonerations that are not well known. The dramatic increase in the number of known No-Crime exonerations reflects an initial success of that effort.
No-Crime exonerations can be located on the Detailed View of the Registry database, by sorting the column labeled “Tags.” Cases that are tagged “NC” – “No Crime” – are those in which the exoneree was convicted of a crime that never occurred.
Jacob Trakhtenberg was convicted in 2006 of sexually molesing his 8-year-old daughter in Oakland County, Michigan. He was exonerated in May 2013 after evidence in a civil lawsuit brought by his ex-wife showed that the girl had been coached and subjected to suggestive questioning techniques, and that Trakhtenberg's ex-wife had a history of fabricating false complaints and a strong motive to do so to gain sole custody of the girl.
We know about Trakhtenberg's case because an attorney from Detroit mentioned it in a social conversation. It was not widely publicized. No innocence project worked on it. It was simply one young "victim" who was pressured to fabricate a crime and put an innocent man in prison.
We hear about a fair number of low-publicity exonerations in Michigan and Chicago, where the institutions that sponsor us are located. In other locations, we usually locate such cases through difficult and time-consuming searches, typically years after the exoneration. There must be many more we have yet to discover. If you know of an exoneration we are missing, please tell us about it here