Record-Breaking Pace of Exonerations
In February, in our 2013 Report, we described the record-breaking 87 exonerations in 2013. This year we are on pace to break the record again, with 25 known exonerations in the first quarter. At that rate – if it continues – there will be 100 exonerations in 2014.
The 25 known exonerations since the new year cover a wide range of crimes, including eleven murders, two attempted murders, and two rapes. Six of the known exonerations involved convictions for non-violent crimes (perjury, theft, non-violent conspiracy, and drug possession). On average, the exonerations occurred twelve years after conviction, though in DNA cases the average time nearly doubles to 23 years.
The exonerations in 2014 thus far reflect several long-term trends that were apparent in the 2013 exonerations:
On March 11, 2014, Glenn Ford was exonerated in Louisiana. Ford spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. The Registry now lists 106 exonerees who were at one time sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit – and in some cases for crimes that never occurred.
- Nine (9) of the 25 known exonerations that occurred in the first quarter of 2014 – over a third of the total – were in cases in which no crime in fact occurred. No-crime cases make up an ever larger portion of exonerations in the Registry, including nearly one third (28/87) of the exonerations in 2013.
- Four (4) known exonerations in the first quarter of 2014 – 16 percent – occurred in cases in which the defendants were convicted after pleading guilty. The rate of exonerations after a guilty plea has doubled since 2008.
- Eleven (11) of the exonerations so far this year – 44 percent – were obtained at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement. This reflects a consistent upward trend in police and prosecutors taking active roles in reinvestigating possible wrongful convictions.
- Five (5) of the known exonerations to date in 2014 – 20 percent – were obtained, in part, through DNA evidence; the remaining twenty (20) were not decided by DNA testing. This reflects a long-term increase in the number of non-DNA exonerations and a gradual decline in the number of DNA exonerations.
New York had the most exonerations in the first quarter of 2014 with five exonerations, though it is impossible to project which state will have the most exonerations in 2014. (Four of the New York exonerations this year were in two groups of two co-defendants each.) As always, the states with the most recorded exonerations are not necessarily those where most false convictions have occurred.
Exonerations in First Quarter of 2014, by State
|NY - 5
||TX - 2
||NJ - 1
|MI - 3
||CA - 1
||OH - 1
|Federal - 3
||DC - 1
||OR - 1
|IL - 2
||HI - 1
||VA - 1
|MD - 2
||LA - 1
Texas Prosecutors Dismiss Bad Drug Convictions
Jerrell Bell and Hien Juan Mai were exonerated in 2014 in Harris County, Texas. After presumptive field tests came back positive for narcotics, both men pled guilty to drug possession and were sentenced to 120 days in jail. They were exonerated when the Harris County District Attorney's Office notified the trial court that drug tests from the crime lab found no illegal drugs in the substances seized from the defendants.
Bell and Mai are the most recent examples of a trend in Texas: exonerations based on post-conviction lab tests in minor drug cases. In all these cases, drug tests were conducted after the defendants pled guilty, received short sentences (usually county jail or probation), and prosecutors brought the exculpatory results to the attention of courts and defendants – even when results came back after the full sentences had been served.
So far, we have identified thirteen of such exonerations in Texas, primarily because we are monitoring all decisions coming from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. We are now reviewing decisions from previous years to determine if there are other such cases.