Police and prosecutors increasingly are working to clear the names of the wrongly convicted, according to a report released Wednesday by a law school consortium.
Law enforcement officials either initiated or cooperated in more than half of the 63 exonerations recorded during 2012, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a year-old collaboration between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
The registry maintains records of the 1,050 exonerations won from 1989 through 2012. Prosecutors and police cooperated in just 30 percent of those cases overall, but played a role in 54 percent of the exonerations during 2012.
"We see a clear trend," said Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, editor of the registry. "This is as it should be. The purpose of law enforcement is to seek truth and pursue justice. I’m glad to see they are now doing so more often after conviction, to help correct some of the terrible mistakes we sometimes make."
Several factors may be contributing to the trend, Gross said, including state laws making it easier to seek post-conviction DNA testing and the formation of conviction integrity units that review and re-investigate credible post-conviction innocence claims. Such units now exist In Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York and San Jose, Calif.
The registry cited the example of David Ranta, who was released from a 37 ½-year prison term in March after the Kings County, N.Y., district attorney’s office in Brooklyn re-examined his 1991 conviction in the murder of a rabbi and found evidence of mistaken identity and as well as perjured testimony.
Law enforcement and prosecutor participation was most common in cases involving robbery and drug crimes and was least common in capital murder and mass child sex abuse cases, the registry said.
Of the exonerations during 2012, 36 involved murder cases, and two of the wrongly convicted had death sentences. Rape cases comprised another 15 exonerations.
The number of exonerations in which the defendant pleaded guilty also appeared to be on the rise, possibly reflecting more willingness by government officials to take a second look at cases involving such pleas, the registry reported. Between 2008 and 2012, 10 defendants per year on average were exonerated after having pleaded guilty. That compared to three per year before 2008.
Karen Sloan is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York.