In 1990, Debra Milke was sentenced to death for the murder of her four-year-old son. But in 2014 a court of appeals found that the officer who had taken her confession—and accused her of offering him sex and flashing her breasts as she admitted her involvement in her son's murder—had a history of falsifying testimony. After she spent 26 years in prison—22 of them on death row—Milke was exonerated. She is one of 149 Americans who were exonerate in 2015. That makes 2015 a record year, according to a report published Wednesday by the National Registry of Exonerations.
The report authors found that they can trace the imprisonment of innocent people to four disturbing trends: False confession, official misconduct, guilty pleas, and no-crime cases, where a crime did not even take place. Most of these are drug cases. The report breaks down the numbers: 27 exonerations were tied to false confessions, 65 were linked to official misconduct, 65 to guilty pleas, and 75 to no-crime cases. Most exonerations, 54, came out of Texas, followed by New York, 17, and Illinois, 13. On average, the exonerated each spent 14.5 years in prison.
In some ways, the report is encouraging. The authors write:
There were more exonerations last year than ever before, nearly three a week. Exonerations used to be big news; now they’re common. Last year saw record numbers of exonerations of innocent defendants in categories in which they used to be especially rare… it seems that prosecutors and judges are increasingly willing to reconsider the guilt of convicted defendants in circumstances in which not long ago substantial claims of innocence were routinely ignored.
Plus, they added, there's been a growth in Conviction Integrity Units, "a division of a prosecutorial office that works to prevent, identify, and correct false convictions," in recent years.
But that doesn't mean our criminal justice system is working. Samuel Gross, who worked on the report, told The Huffington Post that, "historically, this is a very large number for a type of event that we’d like to think almost never happens or just doesn’t happen." The authors add in their report (emphasis mine):
There is a growing awareness that false convictions are a substantial, widespread and tragic problem…We have reliable statistical evidence that the rate of false convictions among death sentences in the United States is about 4%, but we don’t have comparable information about non-capital convictions. The rates for other types of criminal cases could be lower or higher. But even a false conviction rate of 1% translates into tens of thousands of miscarriages of justice a year, and thousands more who were convicted in past years but remain in prison. The exonerations that we report point to a much larger number of false convictions that remain hidden.
Things might be changing for the better, but they're changing very slowly.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.