Black people in the U.S. are seven times more likely to be falsely convicted of a serious crime like murder than white people, according to a new report published Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations. The finding is based on an analysis of exonerations for serious crimes in the U.S. over the last four decades, which found that Black people make up less than 14% of the U.S. population but account for 53% of exonerations in the country.
“[The report] focuses on how it’s dangerous, in a particularly disturbing way, that there’s a possibility of being convicted of a crime that you didn’t commit,” Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and the lead author of the report, titled "Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States 2022," told Yahoo News. “The general conclusion is no surprise. Black people are much more likely to get the short end of the stick than white people.”
Data gathered from exonerations for murder, sexual assault and drug crimes from 1989 through August 2022 highlighted significant challenges in obtaining national criminal justice statistics, including finding clear answers on who reports data to whom and how this data is disseminated to react to trends. Most often, Gross said, counties rather than states are responsible for reporting crimes, which results in misreporting and/or a lack of accountability because of sheer volume.
“Criminal justice statistics in the United States are not bad,” Gross said. “They’re abysmal.”
In addition to dramatic disparities across racial groups in false convictions, the report finds that innocent Black people also spend a significantly longer time in prison before exoneration than white people, with many spending in excess of 20, 30 or 40 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. (National criminal justice statistics are not complete or accurate enough to permit systematic comparisons of Latinos, Asian Americans, Indigenous people and others.)
Gross noted that the report does not tell just one story, but instead tells three separate stories that altogether paint a clearer picture of the challenges of the criminal justice system.
When the false convictions are drilled down into categories, a staggering 69% of drug conviction exonerees are Black, compared with just 16% who are white. That means that despite studies showing that Black and white people use drugs at similar rates, innocent Black people are 19 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. And a lot of this, the report says, is up to the discretion of law enforcement.
“Because drug crimes are almost never reported to police, the police choose who to pursue for drug offenses — and they choose to stop, search and arrest Black people several times more often than whites,” the report says. “That’s racial profiling. One of its deplorable consequences is drug crime convictions of innocent Black defendants.”
In sexual assault cases, the report notes, Black people are nearly eight times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of rape, mainly because of higher misidentification of Black suspects by white victims.
But, according to the report, these numbers appear to be on the decline. Since 2010, only two rape convictions caused by mistaken witness identifications have resulted in exonerations, thanks in large part to advanced technology, including DNA testing.
Murder convictions that ultimately led to exonerations of Black defendants, however, were nearly 50% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than murder exonerations of white defendants. The registry includes more than 250 innocent defendants, the majority of whom are Black, who had drugs deliberately planted on them by police officers. Yet it’s rare that police are held accountable for their wrongdoing.
“The report really shows the depth of the belief that race is a proxy for criminality in the criminal legal system,” Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit committed to exonerating individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, told Yahoo News. “It’s hard to wrap your head around how much of a failure this is that we have jurisdictions that fail people this spectacularly, and then refuse to acknowledge it and then refuse to sort of make it right. … The weight of all of that and the burden of trying to correct all of that is carried by my clients, which is insane, to be charitable.”
In the last 12 months alone, the Innocence Project has successfully worked to exonerate at least 10 people from false convictions, the majority of them Black men, according to Swarns, and the project is working on many others. But despite the fervor for celebrating these people’s freedom, the trauma they’re left with, she said, stays forever.
“[Exoneration] undermines a level of trauma that’s hard to capture and convey,” she said. “When my clients come home, they face real posttraumatic stress from this experience. … They’re labeled with this badge of a felon and a convict and a murderer and a rapist for something they completely did not do.”
Swarns said that in early 2017 she successfully defended a client, Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death in Texas in a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In the case, a psychologist expert witness said Buck was prone to violence because he was Black, which received no objections in court.
“People were prepared to have him executed, because we lost in every single court before the United States Supreme Court,” she said.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his opinion granting relief to Buck, wrote that “the law punishes people for what they do and not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.”
For Swarns, the case typified how “the perceived link between race and criminality is so hard-wired in this country.”
“This is a real perception that’s hard to unmoor from our legal system,” she said.
Just last month Oklahoma began a blitz of 25 executions over 29 months, a figure many experts are calling “horrifying,” mainly because of the high likelihood that one or more of those inmates are innocent. Gross in 2016 co-authored a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, that found that at least 4.1% of all death row inmates are innocent.
“My general reaction is, where is the outrage?” Gross said. “People read about [these issues] and they say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ like it’s happening in Turkey or in Indonesia. They say, ‘It’s not happening to us, it’s happening to Black people.’
“I believe that if that happened to white people anywhere … I think people would say, ‘That could happen to me or that could happen to my son when he’s in college or that could happen to people I know,’” he added. “But if it’s Black people, I think most Americans say, ‘Oh that’s terrible, but it’s not us.’”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)