The National Registry of Exonerations (“NRE”) is a combined project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law, and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society. “The Registry collects, analyzes, and disseminates information about all known exonerations of innocent criminal defendants in the United States, from 1989 to the present.” 


 As of June 18, 2021, the NRE had documented a total of 2,802 exonerations since 1989.


The costs associated with these tragic wrongful convictions and ultimate exonerations are staggering both in human and fiscal terms.


25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions


 A June 14, 2021 report by the NRE (“25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions“) reveals the depths of the costs. Of the 25,000 lost years of wrongful imprisonment, Black individuals represented the lion’s share of those years with 14,525. 


There is an inescapable pattern of every report released each year by a wide array of universities, criminal justice organizations, and innocence projects. Black people receive the longest prison sentences, serve the most time, and are the primary targets of prosecutorial/ police misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions. Black people are also more likely to be victims of excessive and lethal force by police than any other racial or ethnic group.


For example, the NRE report states that “dozens of defendants exonerated since our 2018 report served more than 25 years in prison. Ronnie Long was convicted of rape in 1976 in North Carolina, following a trial marred by official misconduct, mistaken eyewitness testimony, perjury, and false forensic evidence. He served almost 44 years before being exonerated in 2020. Clifford Williams Jr. and his nephew, Herbert Nathan Myers, spent 42 years in a Florida prison (several of which Williams served on death row) for a murder they did not commit before their exoneration in 2019. Their trial was marred by prosecutorial misconduct, mistaken eyewitness testimony, and an inadequate legal defense.”


The common thread in these two cases is that all three defendants are Black males and were convicted in Deep South states. 


We posted a blog on June 16, 2021 about two other Black males in yet another Deep South state who have been effectively exonerated by the District Attorney’s Offices that prosecuted them. Kevin Strickland has already served nearly 44 years for a triple murder he did not commit (and the two men who pled guilty to the murders have long since been released), while Lamar Johnson has served nearly 27 years for a murder he did not commit. Yet, a “conservative” state court system and a White Republican governor have refused to release the two Black men even though dozens of state and federal prosecutors and leading public officials support their release.


Black Defendants Account for 50% of All Wrongful Convictions


Blacks defendants represented 50 percent of all the wrongful convictions in the NRE report, with White defendants coming in a distant second at 36 percent while Hispanics were third with 12 percent. Black defendants also served more time on average than the two other racial/ethnic groups: Blacks served on average 10.4 years while Whites and Hispanics served 7.5 years. 


In fact, in virtually every single category of exonerees, Black defendants served more time on average than White and Hispanic defendants.


The report cites that $2.9 billion has been paid out to people who have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated. But, shockingly, the NRE report found that “Only about 43% of the exonerees received any compensation for the damage to their lives; 55% have received nothing, at least so far.”


Systemic Racism Deeply Rooted in Criminal Justice System


The NRE report is disturbing because it reflects just how deeply rooted systemic racism is in our criminal justice system. 


How does the justice system respond to the harm caused to innocent people who are exonerated? 


The NRE report offers these suggestions:


“While reform has to be focused on preventing wrongful convictions and prosecutions, it is also necessary for the state to correct past injustices, to right wrongs.


“Compensation for persons wrongfully convicted, either through state payment programs or through the settlement of litigation, can be a powerful incentive for reform. Money is important. But it cannot truly make up for the years lost to incarceration. There is a spiritual and emotional debt that cannot be repaid. Compensation comes in many forms. 


“On April 13, 2021, Ashley and Albert Debelbot were exonerated of murder in the death of their infant daughter. The district attorney did something unusual for a prosecutor. He apologized for the unfairness of their trial. 


“Speaking to reporters later, Ashley Debelbot said, ‘I thought I would never hear that being said to me, ever. Once you’ve been incarcerated, the word ‘Sorry’ never comes up, at all.'”


Contrast that to Missouri’s Republican governor, Mike Parson, who recently said that releasing an innocent person from prison is not a “priority” to him. No “sorry” will ever be spoken by Parson or his political colleagues across the country. Instead, these politicos gain juice by running tough-on-crime campaigns that stir up white fear, ultimately leading to locking up people of color without the slightest concern for justice. This evil is the historical progeny of racism and supremacy used against people of color since the inception of this country. It is why our institutions remain permeated with systemic racism and why racial justice and criminal justice reform, in particular, must be a priority in healing the wounds that fester in this country.