Hiding evidence that could prove innocence. Planting drugs or guns at a crime scene. Forcing witnesses to falsely identify a defendant.
A new, in-depth analysis on wrongful convictions put a spotlight Tuesday on “alarming” rates of police and prosecutor misconduct – one that is claiming lives.
The National Registry of Exonerations spent more than six years examining the cases of 2,400 innocent people who were exonerated from 1989 to 2019, finding that 54 per cent were sent to prison because of intentional or negligent mistakes by police, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials.
In general, the more severe the crime, the higher the rate of wrongdoing, the report found.
The most common form of misconduct involved concealing evidence that could have cleared the defendant – occurring in 44 per cent of the cases that led to exonerations. Next was perjury and other forms of misconduct at trial by police and prosecutors, witness tampering, the use of manipulative interrogation techniques to secure false confessions, and faking crimes, with officers planting drugs or guns on suspects or falsely claiming they had assaulted an officer.
“Official misconduct damages truth-seeking by our criminal justice system and undermines public confidence,” said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law Professor Emeritus and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “It steals years – sometimes decades – from the lives of innocent people.”
America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than two million people behind bars, many of them people of colour. Rates began their sharp upward climb in the 1980s and 1990s, as Democrats and Republicans alike used thinly veiled racial rhetoric to push tough-on-crime policies. The numbers have started to dip only in the last decade.
Gross, lead author of the report, said it is the most comprehensive analysis of its kind.
He and his team researched individual cases that led to exonerations going back 30 years, from the initial investigation to the trial, coding their findings into a database.
The real numbers of misconduct may be higher, he said, because most wrongful convictions are never discovered. And even among exonerees, it is impossible to catch all cases of official misconduct, as much remains hidden.
Police were slightly more likely to commit misconduct than prosecutors, in 34 per cent of the cases compared with 30 per cent, the report showed. In federal cases, however, prosecutors were five times as likely to commit misconduct; in federal white collar crime exonerations prosecutors committed misconduct seven times as often as police,in 65 per cent of the cases compared with 9 per cent.
Overall, exonerated Black defendants were slightly more likely than white defendants to be victims of official misconduct – 57 per cent to 52 per cent. That difference was much larger, however, for drug crimes, 47 per cent to 22 per cent, and for murder cases, 78 per cent to 64 per cent, especially those with death sentences, 87 per cent to 68 per cent.
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