Innocent People Have Spent 25,000 Years in U.S. Prisons

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The National Registry of Exonerations released a report marking a dark milestone: as of June 1, 2021, exonerated defendants have collectively served 25,000 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Each day, that number continues to grow.

And innocent Black people serve the majority of time for wrongful convictions.

The Registry reports every known exoneration in the U.S. and includes high-profile cases such as that of Ronnie Long, who was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1976 and served 44 years before being exonerated in 2020. For every individual, whose story gained national attention, there also are numerous others who lost years or even decades of their lives and whose stories never reached the headlines.

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This makes telling the stories of the wrongfully convicted even more important. Among those most recently exonerated are George Bell, Gary Johnson, and Rohan Bolt, who lost nearly 70 years combined after they were each convicted of a deadly attempted robbery and double murder in New York City. In 1996, two of the three frightened young men offered up false confessions (which they later recanted) after hours-long police interrogations. More than 20 years after their convictions, they were released from prison in March and their cases were dismissed on June 4.

The long list of stories also includes that of Anthony Mazza, a Massachusetts man convicted of murder in 1973. After six appeals over 35 years, the Supreme Judicial Court vacated Mazza's conviction in 2020 and he was exonerated earlier this year. He lost more than 47 years of his life behind bars, setting a new record for the longest incarceration.

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The report covers 2,495 exonerations in the Registry as of June 1, 2021. As of June 14, the Registry stands at 2,800 exonerations, including the cases of Bell, Johnson, Bolt, and Mazza. Their cases will be among those stories noted when the Registry marks its next milestone: that of 30,000 years of life lost behind bars due to wrongful conviction and imprisonment in the U.S.

"Unfortunately, the 2,800 exonerations we know about only begin to tell the story of wrongful convictions and the toll they take," says Barbara O'Brien, the editor of the Registry and professor at the Michigan State University College of Law. "The vast majority of false convictions go uncorrected and therefore are never counted. Put simply, while 25,000 years is a staggering number, it is a significant undercount of the true losses these falsely convicted men and women suffered."

The report also updates a continuing study of compensation for the wrongly convicted by Professor Jeff Gutman of George Washington University School of Law. Professor Gutman reports that all forms of compensation now total nearly $3 billion. Yet 55 percent of the exonerees, representing about 47 percent of all lost years, received no compensation of any kind.

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Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, says, "The compensation framework is perverse: those who can pass through the gauntlet of procedural bars created by qualified immunity and absolute immunity for law enforcement in a federal civil rights suit will quite rightly get substantial compensation but those who do not, despite enduring egregious injustice, receive nothing or comparatively paltry compensation."

"The 25,000 lost years exonerated defendants suffered do not account for losses experienced by their families (children growing up without a parent; the daily pain felt by partners and parents knowing a loved one is imprisoned, at risk, and suffering), or the larger impact to a community," Scheck says. "The fact that racial disparities can be seen not only with respect to the number of exonerees but also as to years served demonstrates again that racism is a foundational force that corrupts fairness in the criminal legal system."

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The report notes that in the years since the Registry's 2018 report on 20,000 years lost, the number of Conviction Integrity Units established by prosecutors has grown to 85, including 35 created since January 2019. These units increasingly will play an important role in rectifying wrongful convictions.

"The Registry is dedicated to continuing to document and tell the stories of the wrongfully convicted," O'Brien said. "It is our mission to shed light on these cases in the hope that future miscarriages of justice will be prevented."

The report on 25,000 years lost can be found here on the Registry's website.

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About The National Registry of Exonerations:

The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989, and the recently-launched Groups Registry, which focuses on groups of defendants tied together by a common pattern of systematic official misconduct in the investigation and prosecution of these cases that undermined confidence in the defendants' convictions.

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