Pennsylvania is an outlier in sentencing people convicted of second-degree murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole, advocates for ending the practice say. (Photo via Alaska Beacon)
A new report details stark racial disparities in the American criminal justice system, with Black Americans far more likely to be wrongfully convicted, and later exonerated, than whites.
Of the more than 3,200 people who have been exonerated since 1989, more than half (53 percent) were Black, according to data compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint effort by the University of California/Irvine and the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools.
The bottom line?
Black Americans, who make up 13.6 percent of the nation’s population, are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes, researchers wrote.
“Race is central to every aspect of criminal justice in the United States. The conviction of innocent defendants is no exception,” the report’s authors wrote. “Thousands of exonerations across dozens of years demonstrate that Black people are far more likely than white people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit.”
The report looks at crimes across a variety of categories, including murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.
Innocent Black people convicted of murder, for instance, were about seven-and-a-half times more likely to be convicted than innocent white people. And that applied equally to people who were sentenced to death, researchers found.
“A major cause of this disparity is the high homicide rate in the Black community, a tragedy that kills many Black people and sends many others to prison,” the report’s authors wrote. “Like the families of those who are killed, innocent defendants who are falsely convicted are victims who are deeply harmed by murders committed by others.”
The report also found that:
• “Black people who are convicted of murder are about 80 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.
• “Part of that disparity is tied to the race of the victims. About 13 percent of murders by Black people have white victims, but twice as many—26 percent of innocent Black murder exonerees— were convicted of killing white people,” and
• “The convictions that led to murder exonerations with Black defendants were almost 50 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report paints a similarly bleak picture for drug crimes, with 69 percent of drug crime exonerees being Black, compared to 16 percent who were white. That means Black people are 19 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than are innocent whites, researchers found.
That’s “a much larger disparity than we see for murder and rape— despite the fact that white and Black Americans use illegal drugs at similar rates.”
• “Because drug crimes are almost never reported to police, the police choose who to pursue for drug offenses—and they choose to stop, search and arrest Black people several times more often than whites. That’s racial profiling. One of its deplorable consequences is drug crime convictions of innocent Black defendants,”
• “Most false drug crime convictions involve comparatively low level charges and sentences that rarely attract the effort necessary to obtain exonerations. Almost all the erroneous drug convictions we know about are in a single cluster in Harris County, Texas (Houston), where a unique practice of testing alleged drugs after defendants pled guilty led to 157 exonerations; 62 percent of the exonerees are Black in a county with 20 percent Black residents,”
• “These convictions are errors—mostly caused by defective field drug tests—but most are not innocent errors. Most Black exonerees were stopped and searched—and subjected to the risk of these errors—because of their race,” and
• “We also know of dozens of groups of innocent defendants who were deliberately framed by police officers who planted drugs on them. Almost all are Black people or other racial or ethnic minorities. So far, we list 259 individual exonerees who were convicted of these fabricated drug crimes, primarily in three group exonerations; 87 percent of them are Black,” the report’s authors wrote.
And while there’s been no sign of a decline in racial disparities among wrongful convictions involving drug crimes, there have been huge changes in wrongful rape convictions.
Many innocent people misidentified by survivors of sexual assault in the 1980s have been exonerated by DNA tests over the past three decades. Most of those exonerees were Black men accused of raping white women, according to additional reporting by the Capital-Star’s sibling site, North Carolina Policy Watch.
“There have been no DNA exonerations of misidentified rape defendants who were convicted since 2008 because DNA testing now routinely corrects misidentifications before conviction,” the report’s authors wrote. “This is an extraordinary technological success that has prevented hundreds of false convictions, perhaps more—mostly of Black men.”
As the Capital-Star has previously reported, these wrongful convictions exact a tremendous psychological and economic toll.
As of August, the registry had logged 172 exonerations in 2021, with each person losing an average of 11.5 years of their lives. Pennsylvania logged seven exonerations in 2021, according to the registry’s data.
The average cost of a wrongful conviction, meanwhile is an estimated $6.1 million, or $1,334 per-day of incarceration, according to a 2021 paper by Vanderbilt University Law School professor Mark Cohen.
“There is no longer a debate about the prevalence of wrongful convictions. They are not unicorns,” the exoneration registry’s researchers wrote in their 2021 annual report. “They happen, frequently, and the registry’s research has the data to show precisely the events that lead to exonerations. This information is vital to inform policy and to make improvements.”
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