The National Registry of Exonerations, to date, reflects 1,090 releases in the United States – people wrongly convicted and later freed and cleared of all charges, some after decades behind bars.
The registry is a cooperative project of the University of the Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. They provide detailed information about exonerations, having compiled a database going as far back as 1989.
Using forensic science to process DNA evidence has both convicted criminals and freed those whom have been accused and penalized for crimes they never committed. However, not all false incarcerations are resolved using science, as it only suits a purpose for certain types of crimes with available evidence to test.
University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, one of the registry’s founders, shared less than half of the database cases have been cleared using DNA, as to date, there have been 303 post-conviction DNA exonerations executed by the Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project, created in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York, also works to free potentially innocent people using forensics. Their approach deals with post-conviction DNA, where DNA from the physical evidence of a crime scene is tested against the accused.
It is difficult to assess the exact percentage of innocent inmates locked away while the true criminal is roaming free or uncharged. Though estimates, using statistics from January 1989 through February 2012, assert over 2,000 individuals have been falsely convicted of crimes in the last 23 years.
“The Exoneration Report,” co-authored by Gross and his colleague Michael Shaffer, described the 873 exonerations identified and coded by the end of February 2012.
Gross and Shaffer – with the aid of administrators at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law, the Innocence Project, and law students and recent graduates – reviewed the cases and determined the correlations in the types of crimes and the reasons for wrongful convictions.
False convictions in child sexual abuse cases were classified as fabricated crimes, where parents manipulated their children to make up lies in order to garner an arrest and conviction of a soon to be ex-spouse. There were also examples of police or therapist interference, where children were told to say something untrue. This is referred to as misconduct by authorities, which has been found to be the second-largest cause of false convictions. Mistaken or false eyewitness accounts are considered the number one contributor to wrongful convictions.
Another study, funded by the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), sought to expound further on the causality, wanting to learn how to prevent incarcerating an innocent person.
Jon B. Gould, a professor and the director of the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University, and his research team, conducted a three year empirical study and subsequent paper entitled, “Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice.”
Researchers employed analytical methods when examining 460 cases, using an expert panel composed of sponsors from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Police Foundation, the National Innocence Project, and National District Attorneys Association.
Ultimately 10 significant factors were identified. The 10-factor model included: state death penalty culture, strength of the prosecution’s and defendant’s cases, the prosecution withholding evidence (committing what is known as a Brady violation), and errors in the handling and process of forensic evidence, the age and criminal history of the defendant, intentional misidentification, bias family witnesses testifying on behalf of defendants, and fabricated non-witness statements.
Initial prevention begins at the interrogation of the suspect, the proper follow up of alibis, and the prompt forensic analysis of the evidence. Otherwise, poor witness statements, the absence of forensic results, and an inadequate check into alibis all can lead to what Gould called the “perfect storm of errors.”
This unfortunate amalgamation of events was made worse by the eventual group-think of those involved, investigators and prosecutors collectively building a case around the focus suspect instead of eliminating them based on the evidence, or seeking alternative perpetrators. Evidence that didn’t fit the person in question would be excluded. If a potential suspect was young or had a prior record, the investigation often seemed to skew against them.
One recent example of an overturned conviction is that of David Ranta. Ranta, despite his protests of innocence, was sentenced in 1991 to over 37 years in prison for the 1990 murder of a 56-year-old rabbi named Chaskel Werzberger. The shooting occurred after what was described as a botched jewelry heist, where an assailant attempted and failed to rob 38-year-old Chaim Weinberger of a suitcase of valuables.
Interviews with drug-addicts, rapists, and petty criminals facing jail time led police to 35-year-old Ranta. Although he had several arrests for theft and drug possession, Ranta’s detainment was primarily based on a conversation with a criminal named Alan Bloom.
Bloom admitted he conspired to rob Weinberger with Ranta as his accomplice. Bloom’s cellmate, a rapist named Dmitry Drikman, later relayed the same to authorities. An interview with Drikman’s girlfriend also linked back to Ranta, as she claimed to see Bloom and Ranta attempt to cover up evidence related to the crime.
Bloom later testified against Ranta after being granted immunity for his involvement in the robbery and murder. Bloom was promised a reduced sentence on other outstanding charges levied against him at the time. In exchange he implemented both Ranta and another man named Steve Shakir in the murder of Werzberger, but that he left before anything happened and didn’t know which one had been the gunman. During the investigation, Blood failed a polygraph and changed his story, fingering Ranta as the killer.
The case against Ranta fell apart after a witness, who had been a child at the time the crime was committed, came forward and admitted to being coached by investigators to select Ranta from a lineup. Other witnesses, including the jewelry courier who was nearly robbed, failed to identify Ranta in the same lineup.
In addition, an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ranta’s accusers revealed that during the weeks when police were interrogating Bloom and Drikman, both were allowed to leave jail, smoke crack cocaine, and have sex with prostitutes in return for implicating Ranta.
Ranta’s conviction was vacated and dismissed on March 21, 2013. At the time of his exoneration Ranta had served 23 years, and subsequently suffered a heart attack one day later. He has since been recovering.
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