Police or Prosecutor Misconduct Is at Root of Half of Exoneration Cases, Study Finds

Official misconduct played a role in the criminal convictions of more than half of innocent people who were later exonerated, according to a new report by a registry that tracks wrongful convictions.

According to the report, by the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct contributed to false convictions in 54 percent of exonerations, usually with more than one type of misconduct. Over all, men and Black exonerees “were modestly more likely to experience misconduct,” although there were larger differences by race when it came to drug crimes and murder.

The report comes at a time of reckoning for the American criminal justice system as nationwide civil unrest against racism and police brutality continue.

“Official misconduct damages truth-seeking by our criminal justice system and undermines public confidence,” Samuel Gross, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Michigan and the report’s lead author, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“It steals years — sometimes decades — from the lives of innocent people,” said Professor Gross, senior editor of the registry. “The great majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered, so the scope of the problem is much greater than these numbers show.”

The study, which is based on 2,400 exonerations recorded in the registry from 1989 until early 2019, found that prosecutors and police officers committed misconduct at comparable rates (30 percent and 34 percent). In federal cases, however, prosecutors “committed misconduct more than twice as often as police,” especially in federal white-collar cases in which they “committed misconduct seven times as often as police, ” according to the report.

The report details the different types of misconduct that can occur at different stages of a case. Nearly all of the official misconduct identified falls into five general categories: witness tampering, misconduct in interrogations, fabricating evidence, concealing exculpatory evidence and misconduct at trial.

Over all, the study found that exonerated Black defendants “were slightly more likely than white defendants to be victims of official misconduct,” by a margin of 57 percent to 52 percent. The disparity grew when it came to drug crimes (47 percent to 22 percent) and for murder cases, (78 percent to 64 percent). In exonerations involving death sentences, there was misconduct in 87 percent of the cases involving Black defendants compared with 68 percent for white defendants.

On Tuesday, Joel Feinman, the chief public defender in Pima County, Ariz., which includes Tucson, called the report “one of the least surprising things I read this morning.”

Mr. Feinman, said that prosecutorial misconduct, which was detailed in the report, rarely garnered “the attention it deserves.”

“As few police officers as there are who are arrested and convicted of official misconduct, there are almost no prosecutors” who face such consequences, Mr. Feinman said, adding, “I’ve never heard of any prosecutor being arrested for misconduct, and almost no prosecutors are fired or disbarred for misconduct.”

The new report follows a 2017 study by the registry that found that Black people were more likely to be wrongfully convicted than their white counterparts, and more likely to spend more time in prison before being exonerated.

Kalfani Turè, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Quinnipiac University and a former police officer, said on Tuesday that the new report reinforced “what we know and understand, or we suspect, about race and policing and also prosecutorial misconduct.”

Dr. Turè, who is also the senior fellow of the Urban Ethnography Project at Yale, said the report was a tough condemnation of the criminal justice system, and it supported the Black Lives Matter critique that the system itself, from the point of entry with law enforcement officers to encounters with prosecutors, is rife with corruption, “and it seems to be of the racist sort.”

“In fairness, this report doesn’t make the case that both prosecutors and all police are somehow racist,” he said. “But it certainly demonstrates that there’s a disparity, and there’s a consistent disparity in the sort of wrongful convictions.”

Dr. Turè said he wasn’t shocked by the report, calling it “damning.”

“It’s consistent with what I know professionally,” he said. “But it’s also part of this sort of consistent outcry by members of the Black community and members of the Latinx community that corruption is in fact part of their experience.”

Andrea Headley, an assistant professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown, said the report’s findings were “a clear example of what I would call a ‘pipeline’ problem from police to courts and back again, especially considering accountability after misconduct is found.”

Professor Headley noted in an email interview on Tuesday that this not only reduced trust in the criminal justice system over all, but also reduced reliance on the system for ensuring and enhancing public safety and as a solution for crime.

“Trust is rarely built with grand gestures,” she said. “But more about small moments that lay a foundation, either for the better or worse.”

Jeffrey Bellin, a junior professor at the William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., and a former prosecutor, called the trial of an innocent person “the most important test of our criminal justice system.” He said it was not surprising that “when the system fails that test by convicting someone who is innocent, police and prosecutors are often implicated in that failure.”

“At the same time, this is a part of the problem that can most easily be fixed,” Professor Bellin said.

“Part of that fix, as I have written extensively, is cultural,” he added. “Prosecutors need to see themselves as part of a system that does justice, not as unilaterally responsible for convicting those who they perceive to be guilty.”

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