What Richard Miles experienced at the hands of the police was not captured on cellphone video, did not involve a dramatic altercation with seven bullets to the back or a knee on the neck. His experience was slow, almost invisible, but still devastating—more like a cancer than a heart attack. Miles, who spent 15 years in a Texas prison for a murder he did not commit, told me the images that are horrifying the public today are only a starting point in a sequence of events that has ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent Black men who landed in prison because of police malfeasance.
For Miles, the loss amounts to years spent in a cell, the death of his father before he was cleared, the stigma of having spent time in prison, and others’ suspicion that he really is a killer. “All of those wounds, I still walk with mentally,” he said. “We have all died by the misconduct of people in authority.”
In a new study published by the National Registry of Exonerations, four researchers analyzed 2,400 exonerations from 1989 to 2019. (The study defines exoneration as an instance when a prisoner has been officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence.) Perjury or false accusations (which were lumped together in the study) are the single most-common source of such convictions, but police misconduct ranked second—responsible for nearly 850 of the convictions examined in the report—ahead of mistaken witnesses, jailhouse informants, bad forensic testimony, and rogue prosecutors. Researchers found that police bent or broke the rules in 35 percent of the cases—tampering with witnesses, coercively interrogating suspects, fabricating evidence, hiding exculpatory evidence, and lying at trial. Samuel Gross, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan Law School and the study’s editor, says that when you also take into account the behavior of prosecutors (and some of the cases included both prosecutorial and police misconduct), government officials’ misconduct contributed to more than half of all bad convictions. “And it probably occurs in other cases, because we don’t know about a lot of misconduct that did occur,” Gross adds. “By its nature, it’s concealed.”