New National Database Shows Trends in Wrongful Convictions Across the Country

Categories: Crime

Thomas McGowan (center), Dallas County exoneree, is s subject of our May 10 feature about crime victims and wrongful convictions.
As most people who follow the news know by now, since Craig Watkins became Dallas County district attorney in 2007, 33 local men have been exonerated of crimes they didn't commit. But what does this number mean in the context of the rest of the nation, and what are the common issues that lead to wrongful convictions?

Those questions are more easily answered as of yesterday with the release of a database of exoneration cases nationwide, including a detailed report explaining common causes of wrongful convictions. Dallas County, where innocent prisoners have been freed at a fast clip for the last several years, is outdone by only Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), which has 78 exonerations to Dallas' 36 since 1989.

In Dallas and the rest of the nation, so many convicted felons have been exonerated that the sample size is large enough to identify major common factors that contribute to wrongful incarcerations, including those cases in which the innocent remain imprisoned. The database includes 873 exoneration cases, and the report, a joint undertaking by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, points out that these cases are just the obvious results of systematic problems that still leave others behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

Among the common factors in wrongful convictions, one especially striking statistic surfaced. Mistaken eyewitness identification and official misconduct almost equally factored into wrongful conviction cases nationwide (43 and 42 percent, respectively).

"Eyewitness testimony is just inherently unreliable and yet it is sufficient by itself to sustain a conviction," says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school. Official misconduct, he says, can mean anything from flawed police interrogation procedures to a prosecutor withholding evidence in support of someone's innocence.

Warden stresses that exonerations are just a window into a much larger problem, one that's impossible to quantify. "There's no way, in the vast majority of cases, to ever find out that they didn't turn [evidence] over," he says.

The report further explains why the 873 listed cases only begin to crack open the larger problem.

In any event, the exonerations we know about tell us something about the ones we have missed. Eighty-three percent of the exonerations in the Registry were in rape and homicide cases, which together constitute about 2% of felony convictions, but the problems that cause false convictions are hardly limited to rape and murder. For example, in 47 of the exonerations the defendants were convicted of robbery compared with 203 convictions for rape, even though there is every reason to believe that there are many more false convictions for robbery than for rape ... Why so comparatively few robbery exonerations? Because DNA evidence is the factual basis for the vast majority of rape exonerations, but DNA is hardly ever useful in proving the innocence of robbery defendants.

Even so, of all exoneration cases included in the report, only 37 percent were exonerated by the presence of DNA evidence.

The report also notes that there are nine times as many exonerations for death sentence cases as there are for all other homicide convictions. "The reason for that is that those cases get more scrutiny ... more post-conviction scrutiny," Warden says. Perhaps more shocking is his belief that a wrongful conviction is more likely in a capital murder case than a robbery case.

"The system doesn't have the pressure, doesn't feel the pressure from the public, either real or perceived, to solve that crime," he says of robberies.

"Our hope is that these data will be used to bring about reform," Warden says. Some of his suggestions: mandatory recording of interrogations, review of cases that rested on junk science, improved eyewitness identification procedures and open-file policies in district attorneys' offices. The latter gives defendants access to prosecutors case files, and the policy is already in place in Dallas.

"Of course that won't cure all," Warden says. It's just a start -- a start rooted in data detailing exactly where the problems lie.

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Dan Lee
Dan Lee

The really sick part of this whole system is how ALL prosecutors, District Attorney's and others fight tooth and nail to ALLOW DNA to be used to get convictions, but MOST fight even harder to use DNA to prove innocence.  There is something seriously wrong with that picture!


To be accurate, Leslie, this report does not show "trends in wrongful convictions." In fact, this is a database of exonerations.

The difference is significant. Chicago may outstrip DFW two-to-one in the number of exonerations, but that doesn't mean DFW has half the number of wrongful convictions. It's possible that DFW (or some other place, perhaps) might have twenty times the number of inmates wrongfully convicted but who have not yet been investigated and exonerated.  


Imagine. Just for a moment, close your eyes and simply imagine. You are a young 24 yr. old black man living in Chicago, standing at the precipice of your adult life with a promising future and career. You are at your Sister's home eating pizza and watching a basketball game while, wholly unbeknownst to you, a murder is taking place 23 miles away. A murder that, in the blink of an eye, will alter your life and destiny. Forever. Your life, as you know it, is over.A case against you is being manufactured and you are on trial. With every passing moment reality is slipping away giving into an unfathomable living nightmare that is unfolding before your very eyes. Shock begins to set in as you witness the peripheral players in this horrific nightmare conspiring to convict you of an unthinkable crime. A crime that very few human beings are capable of committing. At warp speed, your life is spiraling out control .... In the following days, weeks, months and years, you are systematically and effectively silenced. Your body is numb while your mind races trying to prove that you are not a killer. You are effectively being buried alive. And nobody can hear your silent screams. Just your worst nightmare. This is the story of Lathierial Boyd. 


Is that Roman Polansky to the right of Thomas?

Leslie Minora
Leslie Minora

Thanks, just to clarify, I'm not equating 'trends' with 'frequency'. The report makes it clear that the database does not show the frequency of wrongful convictions, but it does detail trends and proportions of the causes of wrongful convictions that resulted in exonerations and other data of that nature.

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