C!: Documenting Innocence

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

Documenting Innocence: National Registry of Exoneration
by nancy a heitzeg


More than 2,000 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes have been exonerated in America in the past 23 years. One of them was Timothy Cole.

In 1985 a white student was abducted and raped by an African American man at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Two weeks later the victim was shown six photographs of young African American men. Five were black and white side views; one was a color frontal shot of Timothy Cole, a 26 year old veteran who was studying at Texas Tech and who became a suspect because he talked to a detective near the scene of the abduction. The victim picked Cole’s picture, identified him at a live lineup the next day, and testified against him at trial. Cole’s brother and several friends also testified and swore that Cole was studying at home at the time of the crime. Cole was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His appeal was denied.

In 1995, Jerry Wayne Johnson, a Texas prisoner serving a 99-year sentence for two rapes, wrote to Lubbock County police and prosecutors that he had committed the rape for which Cole had been convicted. His letters were ignored. In 1999 Cole, who was severely asthmatic, died in prison. In 2000 Johnson wrote another letter confessing to Cole’s crime to a supervising judge. It was summarily rejected. Eight years later, DNA tests obtained by the Innocence Project of Texas proved that Johnson was guilty of the rape and that Cole had been innocent. Cole was exonerated in an extraordinary posthumous court hearing in 2009, and pardoned by the governor of Texas in 2010.

The case of Timothy Cole is one of 873 exonerations outlined in a report from the National Registry of Exonerations, a new joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry will be updated on an ongoing basis. It is by far the largest collection of such cases ever assembled – and the most varied.



Exonerations in the U.S., 1989-2012 offers the first comprehensive glimpse into a range of exonerations that extend beyond the the high profile cases of homicide and sexual assault. Many of these exonerations occur because of the later analysis DNA at the crime scene, and on occasion ( 140 since 1973) involve dramatic releases from death row.

The Report includes the following cases, most of which do not appear in any previous compilation:
58 for drug, tax, white collar and other non-violent crimes, 39 in Federal cases, 102 for child sex abuse convictions, 129 exonerations of defendants who were convicted of crimes that never happened, 135 exonerations of defendants who confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, and 71 exonerations of innocent defendants who pled guilty.

In addition to coerced confessions and pleas, the reasons for wrongful conviction are varied but expected -- mistaken eye witness identification, perjury and official misconduct.



And also as expected, race and gender disparities abound.

Women are heavily concentrated among the small minority of exonerations in which no crime was committed, as opposed to the great majority in which there was a crime but someone else did it. Overall, 54% of the female exonerees (31/57), but only 12% of the men (96/816), were convicted of crimes that never occurred. In 84% of the no-crime cases with female exonerees, the women were convicted of violent crimes against children (26/31), including 43% of all child sex hysteria exonerations (20/46) and four of the five shaken baby syndrome exonerations.

Black men are over-represented among exonerees - half of all the exonerees are black, 38% white and 11% Hispanic.



The National Registry on Exonerations is a invaluable resource. The cases documented now and in future by this project are a starting point for further understanding of how the actually innocent are caught up in the criminal injustice system.

And a warning..




It is essential to put these numbers in context. No matter how tragic they are, even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.

The most important conclusion of this Report is that there are far more false convictions than exonerations. That should come as no surprise. The essential fact about false convictions is that they are generally invisible: if we could spot them, they’d never happen in the first place.

† © Copyright 2010-2012, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and criticalmassprogress.com.