2015 PRODUCED THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF EXONERATIONS SINCE WE BEGAN COUNTING
Last year was a banner year for exonerations, according to the Federal Registry of Exonerations.
In 2015, there were 157 people exonerated, which is the highest number since the registry began counting every known exoneration in the United States in 1989.
(The Registry is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.)
Out of the 157 exonerated, 27 of those convictions were based mostly or in part on false confessions—which turns out to be another numeric record.
In 68 of the 157 exonerations, or 43 percent, the defendants pleaded guilty to the crime because they were convinced by the prosecutor and, in many cases, their defense attorney and/or the judge, that failing to plead guilty would mean going to trial, which they were likely lose, and almost certainly receive a much longer sentence.
Again, the number of exonerees (68) who originally pleaded guilty in 2015 represented more than ever in any previous years.
Interestingly more than 80% of the false confessions of 2015 were in homicide cases (22 out of 27), mostly by defendants who were under 18, or mentally handicapped or both.
Fifty-five of the total homicide exonerees of 2015 are men, three are women. Half are African American (29 ), 31% white (18), 10% Hispanic (6) and 9% Native American or Asian (5). According to the report, defendants’ age at the time of the crime ranged from 14 to 54. Eight were under 18 years old and 23 were under 20.
Five of the homicide exonerees had been sentenced to death.
When the 2015 numbers are looked at by state, California has only 5 exonerations in 2015, despite its population of 37 million people, Whereas New York, which has a state population of 19 million, had 17 exonerations, to California’s five.
And Texas, which has a population of 25 million, is the sweepstakes winner with a 54 exonerations in 2015.
So what causes the discrepancy?
THE POWER OF CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNITS
According to the Registry of Exonerations researchers, the discrepancy in the numbers of exonerations is caused, “in large part because of the efforts of prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units in Brooklyn, New York, (8 exonerations in 2015) and Harris County, Texas (42 exonerations).”
Although over two dozen jurisdictions have started their own such units. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey didn’t launch LA County’s Conviction Review Unit until June 29 of last year, although LA County is the the largest local prosecutorial agency in the nation. The LA unit is made up of three experience assistant district attorneys, one paralegal, and one experienced investigator, and was launched with a million dollars from the LA county board of supervisors.
At the time Lacey said that she expected the new unit to review around 15 cases a year, (which seems a little low considering the fact that A
Interestingly, 2012, California led the nation in innocence cases, with 119 exonerations since 1989. LA County will join other CA counties with similar units including San Diego, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara.
But it was Texas that really lead the way on conviction review when, in 2007, the new Dallas County district attorney partnered with the Innocence Project of Texas and began to review 400 old cases. Many of the cases reportedly involving denied requests for DNA testing. At the time, the county had the highest number of wrongful convictions in the U.S.
Today there are 24 county conviction integrity units within district attorneys’ offices nationwide — including those in Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Travis counties in Texas — that work to identify and correct false convictions.
Such units only exist in less than 1 percent of the nation’s 3,007 counties, yet, according to the figures put out by the National Registry, these units were responsible for 39 percent of overturned wrongful convictions in the nation last year, and most of that 39 percent, came from Harris County, TX.
This very strongly suggests that there are potentially many hundreds of innocence cases out there that no one is examining. This is a sobering thought.
PLEADING GUILTY WHEN YOU’RE INNOCENT
Alanna Durkin Richer and Curt Anderson of the AP took a deep dive into the Registry’s 2015 numbers, in particular having to do with those who had been exonerated after pleading guilty.
To better illustrate what they found they told the story of a James Ocho:
Three days into his carjacking trial in 2005, James Ochoa faced a daunting choice: Risk spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted by a California jury or plead guilty and be released in two years.
Ochoa, then 20 and on probation for drug possession, had already rejected two plea offers and wanted to prove his innocence. But the judge made it clear the odds were against him because he had been identified by the victims as the perpetrator. If convicted, Ochoa feared he would never see his young son again.
“I felt like I was gambling with my life,” he said from his home in the Dallas area.
He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and spent about a year in prison before DNA linked the crime to another man in 2006. Ochoa was cleared and released within days.
…In Ochoa’s case, he was charged with two counts of armed robbery and carjacking. Authorities said the crime occurred outside a nightclub in Buena Park, California. He faced 15 years to life in prison.
Ochoa’s attorney, Scott Borthwick, said he tried to talk him out of pleading guilty. Ochoa’s DNA wasn’t on anything inside the stolen car, but the carjacking victims positively identified him. Borthwick said the judge told him during a meeting in his chambers that if Ochoa was convicted by jurors, the judge would give him the maximum: life.
About 10 months after he pleaded guilty, another man was arrested in a different carjacking. The DNA found in the car in Ochoa’s case matched the man, who confessed to the crime.
After Ochoa’s release, he joined his family, who had moved to the Dallas area. He was turned down for jobs at Walmart and other places because the violent felony still showed up on his record, he said.
An officer for the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board initially recommended that Ochoa not receive any money for his imprisonment, saying Ochoa contributed to his erroneous conviction by pleaded guilty.
“Our criminal justice system has lost its way,” David O. Markus, a prominent Miami defense attorney, told the AP. “For a long time, it was our country’s crown jewel, built on the principle that it was better that 10 guilty go free than one innocent be wrongfully convicted. Now sadly, the system accepts and even encourages innocent people to plead guilty.”
In my gang reporting years I watched this phenomenon often, in which young men, and occasionally young women, wanted to go to trial, but were talked into talking a deal for something they didn’t do. “At least I can eventually get on with my life,” they’d say, because the alternative losing far more of their lives was even more frightening.