By Linhchi Nguyen
Research indicates that among all cases where defendants were convicted of crimes in the United States and later exonerated by new evidence of innocence, over half of these wrongful convictions are due to misconduct by government officials.
In recent years, much attention has been shifted towards misconduct by law enforcement officials in the United States, particularly since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 after the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
That’s a summary of a report from Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens that focuses on misconduct that produces false or misleading evidence that is used to convict innocent people, or that conceals true evidence that could help clear them.
For police, this concerns misconduct in investigating crimes while prosecutorial misconduct is primarily actions that may contribute to false convictions.
Gross et. al. utilizes the data from the National Registry of Exonerations, which lists all known defendants who were exonerated from their wrongful convictions since 1989 – a total of 2,400 cases as of February 27, 2019.
Fifty-four percent of those cases are a result of misconduct by government officials, the authors said, adding that, specifically, more than a third of all exonerations included misconduct by police officers, and nearly as many by prosecutors. About one in seven included misconduct by other government officials.
The exonerations in which the misconduct occurred cover a spectrum of crime. At one end of the spectrum, 93 innocent defendants were sentenced to death at least in part because of official misconduct.
For instance, the report notes, 18-year-old Ricky Jackson and brothers Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman were falsely accused of being involved in a shooting incident in May 1975. All three were tried separately and sentenced to death, despite there being no physical evidence connecting them to the crimes.
Their convictions depended entirely on a testimony by Eddie Vernon, who came forward and lied in order to help the police. The police never revealed the conversations to the courts nor to the defendants.
All three defendants were later exonerated in 2014, although Ronnie Bridgeman was paroled after 29 years in prison, and his brother and Jackson each served more than 39 years for a crime they did not commit.
At the other end of the spectrum, some exonerations with official misconduct were for misdemeanors. An example of this case involves Wassillie Gregory, who received a suspended sentence and probation for “harassment” of a police officer in July 2014.
The officer lied in his report that Gregory “pulled away and clawed at me with his hand” when the officer “kindly tried to assist” Gregory into his cruiser. However, a surveillance video later showed the officer handcuffing him and then repeatedly slamming him onto the pavement.
As a result of this evidence, Gregory was exonerated a year later.
Other studies have also highlighted a substantial number of prosecutorial misconduct in criminal cases, as well as the lack of accountability of the prosecutors involved.
In 1999, Ken Armstrong and Maurice Possley reported in the Chicago Tribune that at least 381 homicide convictions across the United States were reversed since 1963 “because prosecutors concealed evidence suggesting innocence or presented evidence they knew to be false.” Hardly any disciplinary actions were taken against the hundreds of prosecutors involved.
In another study, Kathleen Ridolfi and Maurice Possley collected 707 decisions from 1999-2007 in which courts found that state prosecutors in California had committed misconduct in trials that led to convictions. Only 159 of those convictions were reversed, and only six California prosecutors were disciplined in any manner during that nine-year period.
While these studies are informative, they have their limitations. The main issue is that they are based on official findings that misconduct occurred, which are usually in written opinions by judges. Yet, most criminal cases do not produce written court opinions, and in cases that do, misconduct is often overlooked by lawyers and judges because nobody knew about it at the time.
Because prior studies rely on cases with findings of misconduct and include no data on cases without misconduct, they can’t speak to the rate of misconduct in all criminal cases – or in any subset of them.
In contrast, the study conducted by Gross et. al. looks at all convictions that end in exoneration, whether or not official misconduct occurred or was found by a court. This allows them to review many instances of misconduct that cannot be found in court opinions. Therefore, their study has a much richer database with detailed information on these exonerations.
Within the study, they found that all acts of misconduct fell into five broad categories, with a handful of exceptions: Witness Tampering, Misconduct in Interrogations, Fabricating Evidence, Concealing Exculpatory Evidence, and Misconduct at Trial.
Although Gross et. al. cannot use their data to estimate the rate of misconduct in all criminal convictions nor generalize to all convictions of innocent people, they could nonetheless identify that official misconduct played a role in more than half of the convictions of all exonerated defendants.
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