Last year a record 149 people were exonerated, continuing a trend that has risen for several years, the National Registry of Exonerations says in a report released Wednesday.
Those 149 people, counted in 29 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts, and Guam, had, on average, spent 14 and a half years in prison, the report said. Fifty-eight of those exonerated in 2015 were defendants in homicide cases, more than two-thirds were minorities, and about half were African American. Of 47 drug-related exonerations, another record, 42 pleaded guilty in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston.
Additionally, the report said, 27 exonerations were for convictions based on false confessions—22 of them in homicide cases. And, of 58 homicide exonerations, 44 involved official misconduct by authorities.
“Increasingly, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys are acknowledging the systemic problem of wrongful convictions,” said Samuel Gross, a professor of law at the University of Michigan who wrote the report. “That’s a welcome change, but it’s just a start. We’ve only begun to address this problem systematically.”
The report also detailed the work of the nation’s 24 conviction-integrity units, a part of a prosecutor’s office that ensures convictions are fair. The units helped secure 58 of the 149 exonerations last year. Still, the report said: “The performance of these CIUs has been highly variable and some have been criticized as mere window dressing.”
Indeed, almost half of the exonerations secured by the units came from Harris County; 90 percent of them occurred in four counties around the country.