Exoneration List Shows Patterns In False Convictions

While we assume our judicial system occasionally makes mistakes, until recently no one had been tracking the number people in this country who are convicted and later exonerated. Now the National Registry of Exonerations has begun compiling these cases. Audie Cornish talks with the registry's editor, Samuel Gross, about some of the group's findings from the over 2,000 exonerations they've compiled.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Over the years, stories of wrongful convictions have peppered news reports - tragic stories of people sent to prison because of bad witnesses, bad evidence, bad attorneys, and even police misconduct. But until recently, there's never been a nationwide database of people who've been exonerated after the judicial system got it wrong. Now the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have teamed up to create the National Registry of Exonerations. Samuel Gross is a law professor at Michigan and editor of the registry.

And, to start, Professor Gross, this registry contains information about, I guess, 2,000 exonerations since 1989, but do you know if that's really a comprehensive list?

SAMUEL GROSS: No, it's not. It's incomplete in two senses. It doesn't include all the exonerations that occurred. It includes those we've been able to get information on. And, second, and really more important, even if we could get information on all the exonerations that have occurred in the United States in the past 20-some years, that would only be a small fraction of the people who were innocent but convicted of serious crimes, despite their innocence.

CORNISH: So, of these 2,000 cases that you talk about, you have almost 900 cases, roughly, that you have the most detail about. And one thing I found interesting is that it wasn't DNA, necessarily, that exonerated all of these people.

GROSS: That's right. If you ask somebody on the street about exonerations, the next word out of their mouth will almost certainly be DNA and that's because DNA exonerations, which started in 1989, have gotten a lot of attention and for good reason. They've taught us a lot about the criminal justice system and they provide a type of scientific evidence of innocence that is very powerful.

But DNA exonerations have always been a minority of the exonerations that occur and the more we learn about exonerations that don't get as much attention, the more non-DNA exonerations we find out about.

CORNISH: So when you're looking at these cases, what were some of the common causes of false convictions?

GROSS: The most common cause across cases is perjury or false accusations by witnesses. The thing that is probably most interesting about their findings is learning that the leading causes are quite different from one type of case to another.

So, for homicide exonerations, the leading causes of the underlying wrongful conviction is clearly perjury and other false accusations. For adult sexual assaults, rape cases, the leading cause is eyewitness errors. For child sex abuse cases, the leading cause is fabricated crimes, you know, accusations about crimes that never occurred.

Probably our most interesting contribution so far is to begin to see that false convictions is not a single problem, but a set of different problems, depending on what sort of crime is involved.

CORNISH: Now, I read in your biography that you were once a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco.

GROSS: That's right. Yeah.

CORNISH: And it made me wonder sort of how you felt looking at this data.

GROSS: Well, as a criminal defense attorney, like most criminal defense attorneys, I believed that everybody I represented was guilty. Criminal defense attorneys, like almost everybody in the criminal justice system, know that the vast majority of people who are arrested and prosecuted are guilty and many of us then, and probably some now, made the mistake that some people still make, which is mistaking what usually happens and thinking that it always happens, but that's not true.

Most people who are arrested and convicted are certainly guilty, but we have a steady trickle, perhaps a small stream, of errors and it would be wise of us and just of us to do everything possible to minimize that.

CORNISH: Samuel Gross, thank you so much for talking with us.

GROSS: Thank you very much for having me.

CORNISH: Samuel Gross is a law professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

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