The number of United States exonerations has reached historic proportions. In 2014 alone, 125 wrongly convicted inmates were released from U.S. prisons. Six of those inmates were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Although the availability of DNA testing has contributed to the increasing numbers, a majority of the exonerations “were obtained at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement.”
The data, which was presented by the University of Michigan Law School, was published in the annual National Registry of Exonerations.
The researchers concluded that Conviction Integrity Units were responsible for more than half of the exonerations. Although the units have existed since 2003, the number of CIU units has increased from two in 2009 to 15 in 2014.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Post Conviction Review Section, in Houston, Texas, is responsible for 30 of the 2014 exonerations.
Inger Chandler, who heads the Harris County CIU, said the wrongful convictions were the result of “inconsistent practices” within the district attorney’s office.
As discussed in the University of Michigan’s report, twenty-nine of Harris County’s exonerated defendants were charged with possession of drugs. However, testing conducted by the “Houston Police Department Crime Lab revealed that the alleged drugs that were seized from them in fact contained no controlled substances.”
According to Chandler, a majority of the defendants pleaded guilty, and were convicted, before the district attorney’s office received results from the lab.
“… Chandler, the newly assigned head of the Conviction Review Section. She identified two problems. The crime lab was assigning a low priority to drug tests in cases of defendants who had pled guilty; as a result some tests were done months or even years after the guilty pleas.”
Although it is unclear why the defendants pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit, Chandler believes they were offered plea deals that were simply “too good to resist.”
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the report is the number of suspects wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Kwame Ajamu, Leon Brown, Glenn Ford, and Henry McCollum each spent more than 30 years on death row before their convictions were overturned. Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson each spent nearly 40 years on death row for crimes they did not commit.
The researchers concluded “that among the thousands of death sentenced defendants who remain in prison, there are many who were convicted in error.”
The University of Michigan cited numerous reasons for the increase in U.S. exonerations in 2014. However, cooperation from prosecutors and law enforcement officials is responsible for a majority of the overturned convictions.
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