ST. LOUIS – A nationwide push by prosecutors and police to re-examine possible wrongful convictions contributed to a record number of exonerations in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.
The National Registry of Exonerations says 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The joint effort by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 such cases in the U.S. since 1989 while also identifying another 1,100 "group exonerations" involving widespread police misconduct, primarily related to planted drug and gun evidence.
The new report shows that nearly 40 percent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors' cooperation. One year earlier, nearly half of the exonerations involved such reviews.
"Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction," said registry editor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor. "We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them."
Texas topped the state-by-state breakdown with 13 exonerations in 2013, followed by Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan and Missouri.
District attorneys in the counties containing Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Santa Clara, Calif., are among those to recently create "conviction integrity" units. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also is pushing to reduce wrongful convictions, joined by the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. The association's recommendations to local departments include new guidelines for conducting photo lineups and witness interviews to reduce false confessions.
Fifteen of the 87 documented cases in 2013 involved convictions obtained after a defendant pleaded guilty, typically to avoid a longer prison sentence. Forty of the cases involved murder convictions, with another 18 overturned convictions for rape or sexual assault.
The number of exonerations based on DNA testing continued to decline, accounting for about one-fifth of the year's total.
"It's extremely valuable to use," Gross said. "But most crimes don't involve DNA evidence. ... DNA has taught us a huge amount about the criminal justice system. Biological evidence has forced all of us to realize that we've made a lot of mistakes. But most exonerations involve shoe-leather, not DNA."
In Illinois, Nicole Harris and Daniel Taylor each received certificates of innocence from a Cook County judge in January after their respective murder convictions were tossed out in 2013 — a designation that allows both to receive financial compensation from the state. Harris had been convicted in 2005 of strangling her 4-year-old son, who had an elastic band wrapped around his neck. Taylor was released after spending more than 20 years in prison for a fatal robbery that occurred while he was in police custody for an unrelated incident.
In Missouri, former death row inmate Reginald Griffin went free in October 2013 after a small-town prosecutor declined to refile murder charges in connection with a 1983 prison stabbing for which Griffin spent nearly three decades behind bars. Griffin denied his involvement but was convicted after two inmates claimed to have seen him stab the prisoner. One of those inmates later recanted, saying he had not seen the attack. An appellate attorney also discovered that prosecutors had withheld a report that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate as he was attempting to leave the area where the attack took place.
Ryan Ferguson, convicted in 2005 in the beating death of a Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune sports editor, was freed in November 2013 after a state appeals court panel ruled prosecutors had withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn't get a fair trial. The state attorney general's office decided not to retry Ferguson, who had received a 25-year prison sentence.
Like their counterparts across the country, Missouri prosecutors are reviewing not just questionable individual convictions but also the broader issues that lead to exonerations, from coerced confessions to contaminated crime labs.
"It's the duty of police and prosecutors to protect everyone in the community, including victims and defendants," said Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight. "We want the process to be as fair and transparent as possible."