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The National Registry of Exonerations reports that Currently 2,265 innocent people in the U.S. have been exonerated.  These innocent individuals spent a total of more than 19,970 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.  Learning about their wrongful convictions can help us prevent other innocent people from experiencing the same nightmare.  It can also help us free the many thousands of innocent people estimated to be imprisoned in the U.S. HOW MANY INNOCENT PEOPLE ARE WRONGFULLY CONVICTED? No one knows for sure, but the Innocence Project has estimated that from 2% to 5% of prisoners in the U.S. are actually innocent.  (   Even if only 1% of the approximately 2 million prisoners in the U.S. are innocent, this would mean more than 20,000 innocent people are behind bars at this time. A 2013 study by Walsh et al., "Estimating the Prevalence of Wrongful Conviction," which was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that DNA evidence in 12.6 percent of cases involving DNA would support a claim of wrongful conviction. "Extrapolating to all cases in our dataset," the authors concluded, "we estimate a slightly smaller rate of 11.6 percent" for all the cases, which included those lacking DNA evidence.  The study's authors looked at 714 murder and sexual assault convictions in the 1970s and 1980s in 56 Virginia circuit courts to calculate an estimated rate of wrongful conviction.  A 2014 study by Gross et al., "Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death," estimated that 1 out of 25 death row inmates is probably innocent.

WHO IS MOST LIKELY TO BE WRONGFULLY CONVICTED? Although anyone can be a victim of wrongful conviction, research published in a 2017 report entitled, "Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States," by the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions reveals that the majority of innocent people who are wrongfully convicted and later exonerated are African-American, even though African Americans comprise only 13% of the U.S. population.  This disparity in which African Americans are more likely to be wrongfully convicted and later exonerated was found to hold true across all major crime categories, including murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.  For example, the study's authors describe that "judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict.  The major cause for this huge racial disparity appears to be the high danger of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims in violent crimes with black assailants." Data also show that innocent African Americans, on average, spend approximately 4 more years in prison before being exonerated than white exonerees did.  The researchers explain that "some of these differences reflect longer average sentences imposed on the innocent black defendants, but the data also suggest that there is more resistance to releasing innocent defendants if they are black." A number of reasons exist for the high rate of wrongful convictions followed by exonerations of innocent people who are African-American:

  • Police are more likely to stop, search, and question African Americans than white people.  This is caused partly by black communities being designated more often as high-crime areas,  leading to those areas being more heavily policed as police officers attempt to reduce the crime rate.  Another cause of the more frequent questioning of African Americans by police is racial profiling by police.

  • African Americans are more likely than white people to be the target of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

  • African Americans are more likely to be misidentified by white victims or eyewitnesses.

  • A high rate of homicide in the African-American community leads to a greater chance of innocent black suspects being wrongfully convicted.

An Innocence Project case manager reports that "thousands of individuals of every race and ethnicity have requested our assistance.  Yet, the vast majority of our clients are minorities. In fact, people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice system – from arrest to conviction to the prison cells."


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