According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 2,647 exonerations of people wrongfully convicted in this country since 1989.
There have been thousands more recognized through appellate reversals of convictions. Worse yet, there have even more that have gone unnoticed, unaddressed as the wrongfully convicted languish away in prison—many of whom will die there.
There are more than 2300 prosecutor’s offices in the United States—most, if not all, have wrongfully convicted innocent people.
Wrongful Conviction Units
In 2007, the Dallas County district attorney’s office was the first in the nation to establish what has become known as conviction integrity units—in-house units designed to either discover or address wrongful convictions.
Today there are dozens of such units in district attorneys’ offices across the nation—the best of which is located in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in New York.
Created in 2014, by late District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, this Conviction Review Unit (“CRU”) is the largest in the United States.
Writing in the July 21, 2020 edition of The Crime Report, Boston defense attorney James Doyle explained why the CRU has earned such an impeccable reputation:
“The Brooklyn CRU is founded on [these] three principles: non-adversarial truth-seeking, information sharing between defendant’s counsel and the CRU, and structural independence.
“The CRU is insulated from the people and agencies who were implicated in the potential mistake, and from the New York City Law Department, which has to defend any civil liability claims that the CRU’s analysis triggers. An Independent Review Panel of volunteer criminal lawyers an outsider’s perspective to cases, and keeps boundaries marked.”
Wrongfully Convicted Mostly People of Color
On July 9, 2020, the CRU released a 100-page report, “426 Years: An Examination of 25 Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn, New York,” that found 24 of those 25 convictions involved African-American or Latino defendants.
426 Years also found four primary causes for the wrongful convictions: dishonest cops, rogue prosecutors concealing exculpatory evidence, ineffective assistance provided by defense counsel, and flawed forensic evidence.
Systemic Racism, Misconduct, and Corruption
The significance of each of these causes is simple: they are both preventable and curable. The problem has always been, and remains to this day (here, here, here and here), that our justice system lacks both the moral courage and professional integrity to hold these entities accountable for their corrupt actions or complete lack of effort. State bar associations and appellate judges, at both the state and federal level, and peer review forensic commissions find it easier, and too often preferable, to tolerate wrongful professional behavior instead of punishing it.
426 years documented 38 instances of “professional misconduct” in the 25 cases it examined. That is beyond disturbing; it is utterly shameful.
This sort of misconduct invariably involves individuals who knowingly undertake actions they know will convict an innocent person or engage in action designed to keep an innocent person trapped in a wrongful conviction. Human lives are not important to these “professionals.” “Convict-at-any-cost” reputations and resume padding needed for possible future advancement, regardless of any human suffering these behaviors will inevitably produce, is paramount.
Prosecutors and Police work Hand in Glove
Attorney Doyle offers this poignant observation:
“It is true that ‘upstream’ police decisions (e.g., failure to document and pass along evidence) affect ‘downsteam’ prosecutorial decisions, but it is also true that the ‘upstream’ police conduct is influenced by police understanding of ‘downstream’ prosecutors’ needs and preferences. Both of those groups are affected by their expectations for the actions (or lethargy) of the defenders and see-no-evil trial judges still further along.
“Meanwhile, all of these actors are reacting simultaneously to budget, caseload, and media forces.
“Ask safety experts ‘Who is responsible for this wrongful conviction?’ and their answer will be ‘Everyone involved, to one degree or another.’ And their ‘everyone’ will include people who simply did nothing and others, far from the scene of the events, who did the hiring, training, and supervision, set the budgets and caseloads, and generated the pressure to move things along.”
The problems inherent in wrongful convictions are easily identifiable: the police, judges, defense attorneys, and peer review bodies know who the rogue prosecutors are; and prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and police supervisors know who the “bad cops” are; and prosecutors, judges, and peer review bodies know who the lazy criminal defense attorneys are; and prosecutors and judges know who the caseworkers are that use suggestive child interviewing techniques designed to elicit false child testimony or the “forensic science experts” who methods and conclusion are outdated and not supported by science.
Still, the justice system, stressed by the need to move the cases along, and keep convictions final, is more than willing to accommodate these curable deficiencies rather than correcting them.
And that is the overriding conclusion of 426 Years.