exonerations hit record high as more troubled cases probed
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[February 03, 2016]
By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Criminal
exonerations hit a record high in 2015 due largely to district attorneys
in places such as Houston, Dallas and Brooklyn, New York, setting up
units to review cases where the legal system may have acted unjustly, a
report released on Wednesday found.
There were 149 known exonerations in 2015, where the exonerated
defendants served on average more than 14 years in prison, said the
report from the National Registry of Exonerations. That topped the
previous recorded high of 139 in 2014.
The issue has gained attention because of the hit Netflix
documentary series "Making a Murderer," which suggests authorities
planted evidence against two Wisconsin men convicted of murder, an
allegation rejected by local law enforcement.
"There is a coming to terms that this is a regular problem, not just
something that happens once in a while and unpredictably," said
Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan and
editor of the registry.
"But progress so far is a drop in the bucket."
Among those exonerated, 58 had been convicted of homicide, including
five people who had been sentenced to death, it said. About
three-quarters of the homicide exonerations included official
misconduct, it said.
Another large group involved drug possession. Many times people held
in custody falsely confessed to a crime to avoid a trial where they
faced much longer sentences, the report said.
Texas was the top state for exonerations, propelled by conviction
integrity units set up in its most populous counties. The state
known for its tough approach on crime has also been a national
leader in prosecutorial reform.
"For the integrity of the system, it is the right thing to do," said
Inger Chandler, head of the Harris County District Attorney's
Conviction Review Section, where there were 42 exonerations in 2015.
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Over the past few years, the county that includes Houston has been
reviewing cases where there were convictions for felony drug
possession but where lab testing, often coming after a guilty plea,
showed there were no drugs.
Texas had 54 known exonerations in 2015, followed by 17 in New York
and 13 in Illinois, the report said.
There are 24 district attorney offices nationwide with offices to
review convictions, with Brooklyn also among the exoneration leaders
in the past several years, the study said.
"We have turned the corner in dealing with wrongful convictions.
Thereís a lot more to do, but itís just a matter of time," the
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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