Last Monday, investigators, lawyers, and writers at the Columbia Human Rights Law Review published a groundbreaking book-length piece chronicling how Texas executed an innocent man in 1989. The piece is remarkable for how deep down its authors dug to establish how and why Carlos DeLuna was executed for a crime that Carlos Hernandez almost certainly committed. Old news, proclaimed Texas prosecutors (on Twitter, no less) last week, and to a certain extent they are right. It's hard to get people focused upon a case that's a generation old. It's what has happened since DeLuna that matters.
And that's why this Monday brings such another important contribution to the debate over criminal justice in America. Early this morning, a vital new entity, the National Registry of Exonerations, published its first-ever report that picks up where the DeLuna case left off. The study results are grim: By one measure, at least 2,000 people have been falsely convicted of serious crimes in America since 1989. If Columbia Law School dug to the depths in a single case, the Registry has scanned wide the horizon in hundreds of cases to reveal both the progress made and the scope of the problem that remains.
A joint project administered by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, the Registry profiled 873 specific cases of exoneration from 1989 through March 1, 2012. Not surprisingly, most of the men and women who were wrongfully convicted (61 percent) were black or Hispanic. As a group, the 873 exonerated defendants spent more than 10,000 years in prison -- an average of more than 11 years each. And of the 873 exonerees, nearly half, 416 to be exact, were wrongly convicted of murder. Of those, 101 were sentenced to death.
How does this happen? Why are there so many wrongful convictions when there is so much at stake for both the defendants and the victims and when we pride ourselves on a legal system designed to ensure meaningful judicial review? The reasons are legion. It matters where you are convicted, for example, and the color of your skin matters too. And it matters who your police and prosecutors and judges are. The report reveals that in a whopping 56 percent of murder-case exonerations the initial convictions was based upon "official misconduct." Carlos DeLuna, we know, was not alone.
The Registry tells us that there have been 102 exonerations of child abuse convictions, 58 exonerations in cases of non-violent crimes and 135 exonerations of defendants who actually confessed to crimes they didn't commit. It tells us more than I can list here, which is why it is so well worth reading. But beyond basic principles of fairness, and fealty to the old saw about our how justice system is designed to reduce the number of wrongful convictions, why should we care about these people and these cases? What does any of it have to do with the rest of us? The authors suggest one reason:
The tragedies are not limited to the exonerated defendants themselves, or to their families and friends. In most cases they were convicted of vicious crimes in which other innocent victims were killed or brutalized. Many of the victims who survived were traumatized all over again, years later, when they learned that the criminal who had attacked them had not been caught and punished after all, and that they themselves may have played a role in condemning an innocent person. In many cases, the real criminals went on to rape or kill other victims, while the innocent defendants remained in prison.
Although I focus upon capital cases, it wasn't such a case that the Report's authors chose to highlight first in their long narrative accompanying the data they compiled. Instead, it was the story of a man wrongfully convicted of rape. From the Report:
Edward Carter, a 19-year-old African American man, was convicted of the rape of a pregnant woman in Detroit in 1974 and sentenced to life in prison. Carter's conviction rested entirely on the cross-racial identification by the white victim.
Approximately 30 years later, he sought DNA testing through a Michigan innocence project. A search revealed that the biological evidence that was collected at the time of the crime had been destroyed, but a police officer who was involved in the search became curious.
He found fingerprints that had been lifted from the crime scene and on his own sent them to the FBI's Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The prints were matched to a convicted sex offender who was in prison for similar rapes committed at about that time in the same area. Based on this new evidence, Carter was released in 2010, after more than 35 years in prison.
How did Carter come to make it into the report? How was his case identified? The authors here were candid -- it was pure luck. They wrote: "Edward Carter's case got zero attention from the media -- no news stories, no blogs, nothing. It produced no written court opinions. We heard about it from colleagues of the attorney who represented Carter because it occurred in southeast Michigan, where much of the work constructing this Registry has taken place. If it happened in Indiana, we would never learned of it." Chilling, isn't it?