South Carolina residents have likely read media stories about prisoners who were exonerated after spending years behind bars when witnesses recanted or DNA evidence proved their innocence. The National Registry of Exonerations keeps track of these cases, and its latest annual report reveals that the 151 prisoners exonerated in 2018 were incarcerated for a total of 1,639 years. This works out to about 11 years behind bars per exonerated prisoner and is the highest number observed since the organization began tracking this data in 1989.
The research group’s report also reveals that official misconduct is worryingly common in these cases. Of the 151 prisoners exonerated, 107 were sent to prison largely due to misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other officials. Misconduct is even more common in homicide cases according to the University of Michigan Law School-based group. The misconduct figures were especially high in 2018 because a scandal involving corrupt Chicago police officers led to the exoneration of 31 prisoners.
Almost half of the prisoners exonerated in 2018 were convicted of a crime that never occurred, and 19 of them were incarcerated after confessing to a crime they did not commit. The vast majority of these false confessions were made in murder cases, and more than a third involved defendants in Cook County, Illinois. While media accounts often mention exonerated prisoners seeking or being awarded civil damages, most are not compensated by the authorities according to the report.
The number of homicide cases involving false confessions could be particularly troubling to experienced criminal defense attorneys. The U.S. Constitution provides those accused of committing a crime the right to legal counsel regardless of their financial position, and attorneys may urge defendants to avail themselves of this right before making any statements to law enforcement whether they are innocent or not.