A record number of inmates were exonerated in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. As stated in the annual report, which was published by the University of Michigan Law School, a total of 149 inmates were exonerated last year. On average, those inmates served nearly 15 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Five of those inmates were sentenced to death.
A majority of the inmates exonerated in 2015 were wrongly convicted of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The remaining 41 percent were wrongly convicted of non-violent crimes, including drug crimes and theft.
Wrongful convictions happen for a number of reasons, including official misconduct. However, a disturbing number of cases involve false confessions.
A 2009 article, written by Richard A. Leo, Ph.D., JD, and published by the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, suggests false confessions are most often given during police interrogation.
In his article, Leo identifies specific interrogation techniques that are most often associated with false confessions.
“Investigators first misclassify an innocent person as guilty; they next subject him to a guilt-presumptive, accusatory interrogation that invariably involves lies about evidence and often the repeated use of implicit and explicit promises and threats as well. Once they have elicited a false admission, they pressure the suspect to provide a postadmission narrative… “
Leo noted highly suggestible and vulnerable individuals, including those who are developmentally disabled or mentally ill, are far more likely to provide a false confession under these circumstances.
False confessions often lead to inaccurate guilty pleas, which account for 44 percent of 2015’s exonerations.
Although a majority of inaccurate guilty pleas are in drug cases, eight were homicide cases in which the defendant also provided a false confession.
Richard A. Leo identified several factors that contributed to the unusual number of inaccurate guilty pleas in drug cases.
During his research, Leo noted a vast majority of the guilty plea exonerations, involving drug cases, originated in Harris County, Texas.
The issue was traced to a series of arrests in which defendants plead guilty to drug possession based on “field tests” of suspected controlled substances.
In some cases, the defendant “probably thought the pills or powders they were carrying contained illegal drugs when in fact they didn’t.” However, in many cases, defendants entered inaccurate guilty pleas as part of a plea bargain in an effort to avoid “long terms of imprisonment.”
Unfortunately, some of the defendants entered guilty pleas and were jailed before the suspected controlled substances were tested by the state crime lab.
“Months or years later, a report from the crime lab would reveal that the materials seized from the defendant contained no controlled substances.”
As stated in Leo’s article, the law enforcement officers simply mistook “white powder for cocaine, a hand-rolled cigarette for marijuana or non-prescription pills for controlled drugs.”
A vast majority of the inmates exonerated in 2015, were convicted in similar “no-crime cases.” Although most no-crime convictions were in drug cases, six of 2015’s no-crime exonerations involved homicides.
In 1981, six people died in a devastating fire in Brooklyn, New York. Based on eyewitness testimony by the building’s owner, Raymond Mora, William Vasquez, and Amaury Villalobo were each charged and convicted on six counts of murder. All three were sentenced to 25 years to life.
More than 30 years later, the building’s owner “admitted she lied.” As a result, all three men were exonerated in December 2015.
In 1987, Davey Reedy was arrested and charged with arson and capital murder in the deaths of his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. The following year, he was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder.
More than 20 years later, officials determined the evidence in Reedy’s case was questionable. Although he was granted parole in 2009, he did not receive an absolute pardon until December 2015, when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe determined “that Davey Reedy’s convictions on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson are not supported by the forensic evidence relied upon.”
In 1989, Han Tank Lee was arrested and charged with arson and first-degree murder in the death of his 2-year-old daughter, Ji Yun. He was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
More than 20 years later, Lee was granted a hearing based on the testimony of arson expert John Lentini, who concluded that “there is no credible evidence that would lead a competent investigator to conclude that the fire was intentionally set.”
In August 2014, Judge William Nealon vacated Han Tank Lee’s conviction. Although he ordered a retrial, the Monroe County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney announced his decision to forego a retrial, as “the chance of success was very slim.”
— DeathPenaltyInfoCtr (@DPInfoCtr) January 28, 2016
In 2006, Hannah Overton and Larry Overton were arrested and charged in the death of their four-year-old foster son. The couple was accused of forcing the child to drink water laced with toxic amounts of salt and other spices, which ultimately caused his death.
Although her husband pleaded to a lesser charge of reduced charge, Hannah was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Following the conviction, several factors came to light, which shed doubt on Hannah’s guilt.
Prior to his death, the 4-year-old boy was taken to the Driscoll Urgent Care Center. He was then transferred to Spohn Hospital and later transferred to Driscoll Children’s Hospital.
Although this was not discussed during Hannah’s original trial, it could explain the child’s unusually high levels of sodium.
Another issue was brought up by Anna Jimenez, who served as a prosecutor in Hannah’s trial. In her official affidavit, Jimenez accuses lead prosecutor Sandra Eastwood of withholding vital evidence.
“I am writing this letter because I do believe that an injustice has been done. I do not believe there was sufficient evidence to indicate that Hannah Overton intentionally killed Andrew Burd — It is because I witnessed Sandra Eastwood’s behavior before, during and after trial that I fear she may have purposely withheld evidence that may have been favorable to Hannah Overton’s defense.”
After spending eight years behind bars, Hannah was released pending retrial. However, she was exonerated by Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka in April 2015 due to “a myriad of factors which came about after a careful review of the previous trial.”
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) February 3, 2016
Although each of the inmates exonerated in 2015 has their own story, they were all arrested, charged, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated for crimes they simply did not commit. The number of exonerations has steadily risen each year since 2011. However, 2015 set a record high, and the trend is expected to continue.
[Image via Shaiith/Shutterstock]