From: USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-05-20/wrongful-convictions-exonerations/55098856/1
Wrongful convictions shine spotlight on judicial system
Perjury, faulty eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct are the leading reasons for wrongful convictions, according to the first national registry of exonerations compiled by university researchers.
The registry's founders say the numbers, which do not include many cases in which innocent suspects plead guilty to avoid the risk of more serious punishments or cases that have been dismissed because of legal error without new evidence of innocence, represent only a fraction of the problem in the nation's criminal justice system.
"What this shows is that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, and they are more common than people think," said University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, the registry's editor. "It is not the rule, but we won't learn to get better unless we pay attention to these cases."
Despite the data, the registry concluded that the "overwhelming majority of convicted defendants are guilty."
"Most never dispute their guilt and few ever present substantial post-conviction evidence of innocence," the registry found. "When that does happen, however, it should be taken seriously. …We cannot prevent all false convictions, but we must not compound these tragedies by stubbornness or arrogance or, worst of all, indifference."
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, a national advocacy group for prosecutors, said prosecutors in the USA handled about 400 million non-traffic-related cases during the same period studied by the registry. Exonerations "give the gross perception that there is a serious problem with wrongful convictions in this country, and it is just not the case," Burns said.
The cases in the registry were identified from court documents and include catalogs of wrongful convictions maintained by advocates for the wrongfully convicted, including the The Innocence Project, a New York-based group that pursues exonerations through DNA testing.
Since 1989, DNA testing has been responsible for the exonerations of 289 people in the United States, including 17 who served time on death row, according to The Innocence Project.
Among the registry's major findings:
•Of the 416 homicide exonerations, 64% were attributed, at least in part, to perjury or false accusation. Official misconduct by either prosecutors or police, including the withholding of evidence favorable to the suspect, was a contributor in 56% of the cases.
•In the registry's 203 sexual assault cases, 80% involved mistaken eyewitness identification.
•Faulty witness identification was a factor in 81% of 47 robbery cases.
Gross said much of the misconduct involved the failure to disclose information or evidence that might have been helpful to the defendants.
Wrongful convictions represent "our worst nightmare," Burns said. "One is one too many. But I would argue the system is working quite well."