CREDIT: Courtesy of the National Registry of Exonerations
A record number of individuals who were convicted of crimes were deemed innocent in 2013, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. Twenty-seven of the 87 known exonerations were in cases in which no crime actually occurred, almost half for non-violent crimes, primarily drugs.
Murder and even death penalty cases continue to be over-represented in these exonerations. Among those who were deemed not guilty was David Ranta, who, a re-investigation uncovered 22 years later, was convicted based on witnesses who were bribed and pressured to testify against him in the quest to find a culprit for the high-profile killing of a rabbi.
But in addition to these botched murder cases, this year’s list also includes several whose convictions of lesser crimes were invalidated based on discovered photos and recordings of the incidents. Two highlighted by the report involved alleged violence against police, that, recordings later showed, revealed that the violence went the other way around.
Malcolm Emory was convicted of felony assault for allegedly throwing a brick at police during a Vietman war protest. Emory was a 19-year-old student at Northeastern University at the time, studying physics on a full scholarship from the Navy. Police claimed they beat him after he threw a brick, but Emory always maintained that he was carrying books. An unpublished newspaper photo discovered 20 years later depicted him “being dragged across the ground by a police officer while holding an armful of books.”
As a result of the felony conviction, Emory lost his scholarship and was unable to complete college, was “forced to resign from his job at the United States Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory and was stripped of his security clearance.” Even after Emory learned years later that a Boston Globe photographer had a set of unpublished photos from that day, it took his lawyers four years to secure access to the images without a subpoena. The day after the charges against Emory were dismissed, Northeastern granted him his scholarship and he completed his bachelor’s degree in physics.
A Tennessee exoneration tells a similar story. Adam Tatum was convicted of assault on a police officer and possession of marijuana and sentenced to two years in prison. Because this incident was from 2012 when video monitoring had become common, Tatum was exonerated just a year later using security video footage that police never disclosed.
Tatum was in a re-entry facility for convicted felons when two officers approached Tatum and a fellow resident. When the men started to walk away, officers severely beat Tatum. The report explains what was depicted in the video:
[Officer] Emmer grabbed Tatum and, with [Officer] Cooley’s help, threw him to the floor. Both officers beat Tatum viciously with their metal batons. Tatum’s left leg was fractured in two places and one of the broken bones pierced his skin, sending blood spurting onto the floor. His left leg was fractured in six places. More officers arrived, and one leaned over Tatum and punched him in the face and head repeatedly. Tatum was handcuffed and forced to walk from the facility down the sidewalk, where he collapsed after about 100 feet. While waiting for an ambulance, Emmer kicked Tatum in the legs and chest, knocking him backward to the ground. [...]
When Tatum arrived at the hospital, there was so much blood on his body that medical personnel at first believed he had been shot. Surgery was required to fix his legs.
This case not only involved lying by police. It also involved suppression of evidence by law enforcement — a due process violation and common cause of false convictions for which prosecutors are rarely held accountable. In this case, the officers were fired and a lawsuit against them settled for $125,000.
Overall, the most common causes of wrongful convictions were perjury or false accusation, official misconduct, or witness misidentification. And although these causes involve law enforcement error, an increasing number of wrongful convictions are now being exposed with the help of law enforcement entities. In Brooklyn, for example, David Ranta’s murder conviction was overturned with the help of the Kings County Conviction Integrity Unit, developed after the county district attorney was linked to gross manipulation of investigations. Coerced guilty pleas remain common — 17 percent involved false confessions. And blacks continue to be over-represented in exonerations.
The emergence of DNA testing in criminal trials exposed the frequency of wrongful convictions even in murder and death penalty convictions after the first piece of evidence was tested in 1989. Since then, some 312 DNA exonerations have revealed a great deal of information about where prosecutions go wrong. But this year’s report revealed that the number of exonerations based on DNA evidence is dropping. The report attributes this to increased DNA testing before trial, even though many prominent cases involve instances when prosecutors refuse to test available evidence.
This report only accounts for known exonerations. As the national registry explains, there are many more unknown exonerations “and MANY more unknown false convictions.” In just the past two years, the registry discovered 280 exonerations that were previously unknown.