A record number of people, at least 166, were exonerated last year after being wrongly convicted of crimes, according to the most recent annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations.
Using information on exonerations going back to 1989, the latest report also shows that black people continue to be more likely to be wrongly convicted in America than people of other races. There is no standardized reporting system for exonerations, but the registry is the most complete national data collected on the subject.
Take the crime of murder. Last year, the report collected data on 52 people who were exonerated of murder. More than half of them, 28, were black.
A companion report on race and wrongful conviction, also released Tuesday, states:
“African Americans are only 13% of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47% of the 1,900 [total] exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016).”
One of those exonerated, Devontae Sanford, was 14 years old when four people were killed in a house in his Detroit neighborhood. The black teenager confessed to the killings and, despite testing negative for gunshot residue and not matching descriptions of the perpetrators provided by witnesses, he was convicted and sentenced to 37 to 90 years in prison.
As NPR’s Joe Shapiro reported last year, “after almost nine years in prison, his conviction was overturned when a state investigation found that the real killer had later confessed to Wayne County police and prosecutors.”
Joe also reported that court fees, including a $1,500 bill for a public defender, nearly kept the now-23-year-old man from being released — even after he had been exonerated.
Sanford was one of 16 people exonerated for murder last year who had been convicted when they were teenagers.
As in past years, Texas leads the country in exonerations, many of them for nonviolent drug crimes. The report acknowledges that there are many possible reasons for the Texas numbers, including the possibility of a higher overall rate of wrongful conviction in the state, but it notes that the county that includes Houston has overturned dozens of convictions since it created a Conviction Integrity Unit to review past cases, and credits the unit with investigating questionable convictions.
Last year, The Texas Tribune reported that the state had paid 101 people who were wrongly convicted nearly $100 million over the previous 25 years.