Have you been watching Making a Murderer? Listening to the Serial podcast?
Both programs deal with a common thread – the potential for wrongful imprisonment in America.
And they’re both timely.
Last year, the U.S. set a record for the number of exonerations for wrongly convicted inmates: 149. That’s about three a week.
LISTEN: Guest host Shane Foxman talks wrongful convictions in the U.S.
Sam Gross is the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks wrongful convictions at the University of Michigan Law School.
He says there’s good news and bad news in the numbers.
“I think it’s good – I think the system has come to recognize that false convictions occur on a regular basis and that we have to identify and correct them to the extent that’s possible… on the other hand, it also reflects the fact that the problem of convicting people that are innocent happens on a regular basis and it’s not just a freak accident.”
Gross says the problem is likely much bigger than it looks – most of the exonerations are clustered in a few U.S. counties. He says if bigger jurisdictions put some effort into looking, they’d likely find many more.
How are they overturned?
So how are these cases begin reversed? Contrary to what you see on CSI – it’s not usually lab work.
“If you talk to people about exonerations in the United States, most of them think of exoneration as the second word in a two word phrase, that begins with the word DNA. And that’s not the case.”
Gross says only 26 of last year’s cases came from DNA evidence, because people don’t actually often leave DNA at a crime scene.
Instead, he says there are plenty of ways the truth comes out – such as police actually catching the real criminal.
“In quite a few cases it was determined that no crime had been committed at all. For example, the biggest cluster of cases was a set of 42 drug possession convictions from Harris County Texas, that’s where Houston is located, where people had plead guilty to possession of drugs. And then after they plead guilty, a lab report from a crime lab showed there were no illegal drugs in the material seized from them.”
Gross says it’s not uncommon for people to plead guilty when they can’t make bail, especially if they have a prior conviction. Pleading comes with a short sentence or maybe even probation. The alternative is to spend weeks, or even months in jail – and the possibiliy of conviction, followed by years in prison.
Gross says about half of the people exonerated last year were black, and more than 70% were minorities of one description or another. He says the bulk were also from the lower end of the economic scale.
“Absolutely. The criminal justice system in the United states bears most heavily on people who are poor and there’s little doubt about that.”
He says about 40% of wrongful convictions are because of misconduct on the part of authorities, but shockingly, more than half of wrongful murder convictions are because of foul play by officials – usually, concealing key evidence.
Despite this, he says he believes the system isn’t broken – just not functioning perfectly.
“It’s no doubt that the criminal justice system in the united states could be improved, but it’s not hopeless. I just hope that people recognize that it’s imperfect and that we should do what we can to take care to avoid errors and correct them later on.”