There has been prior research pointing to racial bias and official misconduct contributing to higher wrongful conviction rates for Blacks than for whites. But the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) not only documents such instances; it also supplies a consistent source of data to explore what is driving that disparity.
A NRE report, “Race And Wrongful Convictions In The United States,” released last week, examined U.S. cases from 1989 to October 2016. Of the 1,900 defendants convicted of crimes and later exonerated, 47 percent were African Americans — three times their representation in the population, which is 13 percent.
The analysis focuses on sexual assaults, murder and drug-related offenses. These are the crimes for which exonerations are most common.
According to the study, Blacks were almost seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites. Forty percent of Blacks were convicted of murder but are 50 percent of those wrongfully convicted, whereas 36 percent of whites were wrongfully convicted of a crime.
The report said that the high homicide rate in the Black community is one of the causes of the high number of Blacks exonerated for murder.
But the authors note that this alone does not explain the disparity between Blacks and whites in regard to wrongful convictions. Official misconduct also plays a role.
“In the murder cases we examined, the rate of official misconduct is considerably higher in cases where the defendant is African American compared to cases where the defendant is white,” Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law School professor who is senior editor of the group that tracks U.S. exonerations, told Reuters.
The report said that convictions, which led to murder exonerations with Black defendants, were 22 percent more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.
On average Black murder exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and those sentenced to death spent four years longer in prison.
Also in regard to racial disparity, about 15 percent of all murders committed by Black individuals involve white victims, the report said. But 31 percent of Blacks eventually exonerated were initially convicted of killing white people.
“African American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers,” according to the authors.
“Many of the convictions of African American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism.”
In regard to sexual assault, the report said that a Black prisoner is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict.
Researchers discovered that assaults on white women by Black men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the country, “but they constitute half of sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration.”
They found that convictions that led to sexual assault exonerations were not only cases of misidentification but also included instances of implicit biases, racially tainted official misconduct “and, in some cases, explicit racism.”
The authors said the racial disparities are especially stark for drug cases. Blacks are about 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than innocent white people.
The report indicates that police enforce drug laws more vigorously against Blacks than against members of the white majority, “despite strong evidence that both groups use drugs at equivalent rates.”
African Americans are more frequently stopped, searched, arrested and convicted — including in cases in which they are innocent. The extreme form of this practice is systematic racial profiling in drug-law enforcement, the report said.
Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants.
A NRE companion report said that 166 exonerations in 2016 set a record high for the third year in a row, averaging more than three per week. This pushes the registry past 2,000 exonerations for people who were wrongly convicted. About half of the people exonerated for non-drug related crimes in 2016 were Black. In contrast, roughly two-thirds of those exonerated for drug possession or sale last year were Black.
The authors of the report cautioned: “The record numbers of exonerations that we have seen in recent years have not made a dent in the number of innocent defendants who have been convicted and punished.
“The number of those who are cleared and released is simply a function of the resources that are available to reinvestigate and reconsider cases on the one hand, and the level of resistance to doing so on the other.”
The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.