Guilty until proven innocent [Commentary]

A report released this week from the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint venture between two Midwestern law schools, hails 2013 as a "record-breaking" year for exonerations — though the term is used loosely. Overturned convictions may have little to do with the establishment of actual innocence and more to do with the discovery of mistakes or misdeeds in the legal proceedings.

Around the country, at least 87 convictions were overturned last year, including two in Maryland — one because information about the unreliability of a key witness was withheld from the defense and the other because DNA analysis revealed another man committed the crime.


Such DNA findings — often true exonerations — are declining (down 22 percent since 2005) and presumably will continue to do so as the population eligible for back testing dwindles. DNA was first used to gain a conviction in a U.S. court in 1987, and the first DNA exoneration occurred two years later, in 1989 — a quarter century ago. It's now standard practice to test available DNA prior to trial in major crimes, and people today have a better chance of being put in prison based on DNA evidence than being released because of it.

There's some good news in the report for wrongful conviction advocates, given the rising number of reversals. The proportion of cases overturned for reasons other than biological evidence is increasing as is the proportion of turnarounds that had the cooperation of law enforcement. Those numbers suggest that courts are becoming more willing to entertain innocence claims that aren't as cut-and-dried as DNA evidence can be, and that prosecutors and police are largely remembering that closing a case isn't about boosting department statistics but serving justice.


Two other records in the report stand out as disturbing trends, though. Nearly a third of the overturned convictions, 27 of them (an all-time high), occurred in cases where it was determined that no crime had been committed, meaning cases that are bad from the beginning are being pursued to an unjust end. That category is typically dominated by deceitful claims of sexual assault or child sexual abuse, but last year, more people were falsely accused of non-violent drug crimes than sexual attacks. In one of those cases, police framed a man. But in most of them — seven out of nine cases — the defendants pleaded guilty to possessing drugs, and lab results later revealed (sometimes years later) that the seized substance wasn't a narcotic at all.

That leads us to the other area of concern: the 15 overturned convictions following guilty pleas last year. That was a record as well — 17 percent of the total, a rate that has doubled since 2008. Most of the falsely accused defendants in the drug cases fit into this category; they were repeat offenders who took plea deals and the accompanying lighter sentences because they weren't willing to gamble in a trial, which might lead to freedom or a longer prison term.

Others made false confessions after hours of interrogation, however. The report highlighted the case of Nicole Harris, an Illinois woman who was convicted of murdering her four-year-old son after he was found strangled by a bed sheet. She was questioned by police for 27 hours — during which time she was denied food, water and bathroom use — and in a beaten down, confused state, she ultimately wound up confessing. Her older son was barred from testifying that he had seen his little brother wrap the sheet around his head and jump off the bed, accidentally asphyxiating himself playing a game of Spider-Man. Last month, a judge granted Ms. Harris a "certificate of innocence," which allows her to seek compensation for the eight years she spent in prison for a crime she didn't commit.

This should send a warning to police and prosecutors to take great care in interrogations and when negotiating plea agreements. False confessions made after hours of intense interviews where investigators may have unwittingly passed on crime details serve no one. And while plea agreements are often attractive to defendants, who see a chance for a reduced sentence, and prosecutors, who are spared the time and expense of trial, that expediency shouldn't come at the cost of justice.

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