African Americans are far more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder, sexual assault, or a drug offense than their white counterparts, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations.
While African Americans comprise just 13% of the population in the US, they account for nearly half of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the registry as of October 2016. (Since October the registry’s number has risen to 2000 known exonerations.)
According to the exoneration data, innocent black defendants are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white defendants. The murder convictions that resulted in exonerations for black defendants were 22% more likely to involve misconduct by law enforcement officers than those of white defendants.
Black inmates serving time for sexual assault are three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. The report attributes this to a high rate of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims of violent crimes committed by black assailants. Black sexual assault defendants also receive harsher sentences for the same crimes committed by white defendants.
The disparities are also found in drug crime rates. While research shows that black and white Americans use illegal drugs at around the same rate, black people are about five times a likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites. Judging from the exoneration data, innocent black people are 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.
African American exonerees also spent more time behind bars before finally being exonerated. On average, wrongfully convicted black defendants waited three years longer than white defendants and four years longer than Latino defendants to be cleared of their convictions and released from prison.
In 2016, there was a record number of exonerations in the US—166—breaking the previous record of 157 exonerations in 2015.
According to a companion report also released Tuesday, of the record-breaking 166 exonerations, 54 of the defendants were erroneously convicted of murder, 24 were convicted of sexual assault, and 15 were convicted of other violent crimes.
At least 70 of the 166 wrongful convictions stemmed from police, prosecutorial, or other official misconduct. More than two-thirds of the 54 cleared homicides involved misconduct by officials.
In 2015, 43% of the then-record-breaking 157 exonerees pleaded guilty 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.
Back in 2012, a former Long Beach high school football star, Brian Banks, was cleared of a 2003 rape conviction with help from the California Innocence Project. Banks pleaded “no contest” to the rape charge in order to avoid a 40-to-life sentence, and spent six years falsely imprisoned and five years on parole. While on parole Banks met with his accuser, Wanetta Gibson, and secretly recorded Gibson admitting the accusation was false. (Read more about Banks’ harrowing story: here.)
The National Registry of Exonerations was launched in 2012 as a project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law, and the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine. The registry contains data on every known exoneration in the US since 1989.