RICHMOND, Va. – Across the U.S., nearly 150 prisoners were released last year when their convictions were overturned. That’s a record number of exonerations.
A report by The National Registry of Exonerations shows those people served an average of 14-and-a-half years. Three Virginia men were released, two had been in prison more than 25 years.
Registry editor and University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross says most of the overturned sentences were in Texas and New York, where local officials are taking a stronger approach to seeking justice for people wrongfully convicted.
“We have something like 3,100 different counties in the country, and something like 2,500 separate, local prosecutorial agencies,” says Gross. “If more of them made the efforts that were made in those two locations, I’m sure they would find many more cases in which innocent defendants were convicted.”
Across the country, defendants were exonerated in cases ranging from homicide to drug possession. The report says their convictions included false confessions, official misconduct, and guilty pleas. A record 75 exonerations, including two in Virginia, were cases in which no crime actually occurred.
According to Lonnie Soury, founder of the website FalseConfessions.org, statistics show the reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
“Even the federal Justice Department did a study once and said between 5 and 10 percent of the people in prison are wrongfully convicted,” Soury says. “So, if there’s 2.5 million people in prison, even 5 percent would be 125,000.”
The National Registry of Exonerations report says there were 24 Conviction Integrity Units in the U.S. in 2015. That’s double the number from 2013, and four times the number in 2011, although some units have been accused of being ineffective and creating an illusion of progress.