Innocent African Americans are More Likely to be Wrongfully Convicted than Whites and Spend Longer in Prison before Exoneration, Data Show

A Companion Report by the National Registry of Exonerations Found a Record Number of Exonerations in 2016—for the Third Straight Year—and a Record Number of Cases with Official Misconduct

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers, according to a report released today by the National Registry of Exonerations. Convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were more likely to involve misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. On average, black murder exonerees waited three years longer in prison before release than whites.

Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States analyzes exonerations for murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes since 1989. Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

“I was arrested because I was the only black man in town with a white girlfriend. I was picked out of a lineup because white people mistake one black man for another all the time. I was convicted by an all-white jury that wouldn't believe me. People don’t want to admit it, but racism still exists in our country, especially our criminal justice system,” said Marvin Anderson, who served 20 years for a sexual assault he did not commit, and is a board member of the Innocence Project and an advisor to Healing Justice.

Innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. That problem will only grow if drug-law enforcement is ramped up.

In addition, since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants. The overwhelming majority were African-American defendants framed for drug crimes that never occurred. 

“Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States and Senior Editor of the Registry.

“Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, we knew that the police could pick us up for something we didn’t do and send us to prison,” said Obie Anthony, the Executive Director of Exonerated Nation, who was incarcerated for 17 years for a murder he did not commit, before being exonerated in 2011. “A lot of times, it’s about getting a black body, not finding out who is actually guilty. When a young black man goes to court, and it’s his word against the police officer’s, who are they going to believe?”

In 2016, the Registry found a record high of 166 exonerations, averaging more than three per week, with 54 defendants exonerated of homicide. The states with the most exonerations were Texas (58), Illinois (16), New York (14), California (9), North Carolina (8), Oregon (5), Pennsylvania (5), Michigan (4), Oklahoma (4), and Virginia (4).

Last year, there were more exonerations than in any previous year in which: government officials committed misconduct (70); the convictions were based on guilty pleas (74); no crime actually occurred (94); and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration (70). There were 29 conviction integrity units (CIUs) in the United States in 2016, more than double the number in 2013. However, half of all CIUs have never been involved in any exonerations.   

“The vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered,” said Michigan State University Law Professor Barbara O’Brien, the author of Exonerations in 2016 and Editor of the Registry. “There’s no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly—that’s beyond dispute. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem. But will we do enough to actually address it? That remains to be seen.”

Read the report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, at https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf (link available at 12:01 a.m. Eastern on March 7, 2017).