2014 was a record year for exonerations, according to a report released today by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. A total of 125 exonerations were recorded by the registry, 34 more than last year and the highest recorded in the registry’s history.
The report attributes the sharp increase in part to the success and proliferation of conviction integrity units set up by prosecutors across the country to investigate claims of innocence. The Harris County District Attorney’s Post Conviction Review Section in Houston, Texas, alone boasted 30 exonerations in 2014. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit tallied 10. Six district attorneys’ offices set up conviction review units in 2014, including the United States Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC. There are now 15 such units across the nation working to review claims of innocence in their districts.
The report revealed a record number of exonerations in which the defendant pled guilty to the charges. Thirty-eight percent of the total cases and nearly all of the drug-related cases last year were based on guilty pleas.
The report showed a record number of non-DNA exonerations. Of the 125 total exonerations in 2014, 22 were based on the testing of DNA evidence from crime scenes, which is consistent with prior years.
In nearly half of the exonerations recorded in 2014, no crime was found to have occurred. All of the drug-related exonerations were based on lab tests that proved the substances seized from the defendants were not illegal drugs.
“Judging from known exonerations in 2014, the legal system is increasingly willing to act on innocence claims that have often been ignored: those without biological evidence or with no perpetrator who can be identified because in fact no crime was committed; cases with comparatively light sentences; and judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who accepted plea bargains to avoid pre-trial detention and the risk of harsher punishment after trial,” the report states.