Texas Places Third in Number of Exonerations Over the Past Two Decades

Texas is third in the nation in a category that draws more embarrassment than praise: exonerations of those who were wrongfully convicted.

The University of Michigan Law School, working with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, released what is believed to be the first national registry of exoneration. It provides data from 2,000 cases covering the last 23 years. In Texas alone, there were 87 exonerations. Only Illinois and New York had more, with 110 and 88 respectively.

The exonerations were not only for cases of rape and murder, but also for drug cases, white collar crimes, child sex abuse crimes, and crimes that never occurred. Reasons for exoneration include perjury and false accusations, which make up 51% of the exonerated cases. Of those exonerated, 50% were African American and 93% were men.

The database’s creators hope that the database will encourage a greater focus on accuracy. They note that police officers’ mistakes are more due to overwork than to overzealous or abusive conduct. Unfortunately, despite their detailed work, the database is just a drop in the bucket. The creators note that with more than 2.3 million people in jails and prisons, the database does not come close to covering every wrongful conviction. Moreover, exonerations can vary heavily from county to county, depending upon the resources available. For instance, in Dallas County, with a population of 2.4 million, there have been 36 exonerations, while Bexar County, with 1.7 million people, has had no exonerations. Of the 36, 21 have taken place since 2007, the same year Craig Watkins was elected as Dallas’s District Attorney. Watkins immediately created a Conviction Integrity Unit to review claims of innocence. Outside of Texas, convicted criminals in Santa Clara County, California have benefited from organizations like the Northern California Innocence Project, which is behind 10 exonerations, while neighboring counties lacking the same resources, such as Alameda, have none.

While the database is a promising first step toward creating a whole new attitude surrounding conviction, it also suggests how deep a hole the system has dug, and that it could take a long time for reformers to dig it out. In order to be exonerated in the first place, people must still get convicted and live, possibly for years, behind bars. Rather than waste taxpayer resources, and keep criminal defense attorneys needlessly busy, a different approach is needed. Some were recently provided by District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina of New York. Instead of having an executive guilty of a white collar crime thrown into jail, Judge Urbina sentenced him to write a 75,000 word, 235-page text deterring others from committing the same crime, along with two years of probation. Too lenient? Perhaps. But in the end, it may be more effective and cost efficient than sentencing him to prison, at $22,000 per year. It is not the solution, however, and nobody familiar with the system sees a quick fix to this injustice.

My feeling is that prosecutors should pay attention to the guidelines set forth by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ; A prosecutor’s goal is not to win, but rather to see that justice is done.