EXONERATIONS: Part VIII – Trends Show Decrease of Official Misconduct in Some Cases, Increase in Others


(This is the eighth in an 11-part series by The Vanguard reporting on a study of exonerations produced by Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens)

By Linhchi Nguyen

Trends from the exoneration database indicates a decrease in official misconduct relating to improper questioning of children, misconduct in interrogations, and forensic fraud. There is also evidence suggesting a recent increase in official misconduct in federal white-collar crime prosecutions, according to a report by Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens.

Despite some limitations on data, the researchers were still able to identify noticeable trends in certain official misconduct over time.

For instance, improper questioning of children has decreased sharply since the mid-1990s – it occurred in 28 percent of child sex abuse exonerations from convictions through 2002 but only 10 percent of such exonerations from convictions since 2003.

Most misconduct in child sex abuse exonerations (77 percent) were part of the child sex abuse hysteria epidemic that lasted from mid-1980s into the late 1990s (77 percent).  But since 1998, only a handful of ordinary child sex abuse exonerations have included an improper and often abusive form of interrogation.

There seems to also be another trend regarding misconduct in interrogations. The frequency of such incident has dropped dramatically in the past 16 years, according to Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens.

This is especially prevalent in murder interrogations since more than three-quarters of exonerations with misconduct in interrogations are murder cases. According to the data, police officers committed misconduct in 119 interrogations in exonerations from murder convictions through 2002; they used threatened physical violence in 86 of those interrogations.

In contrast, since the beginning of 2003, police committed misconduct in only seven murder interrogations of exonerees who were convicted – a decrease by a factor of 17. They used or threatened violence only twice in interrogations since the beginning of 2003, a decrease by a factor of more than 40.

Forensic fraud also appears to have declined sharply, the study suggested, among exonerations from convictions after 2002. Overall, five percent of exonerations through 2002 included forensic fraud, compared to 0.4 percent of all exonerations of defendants convicted in 2003 or later.

Among murder cases, four percent of exonerations through 2002 included forensic fraud, while only one percent included forensic fraud since 2003.

The steep decline in forensic fraud persists when researchers looked look at false or misleading evidence (FMFE) cases separately. Through 2002, 18 percent of exonerations with FMFE from convictions included forensic fraud. But since 2003, only 2 percent included forensic fraud.

The described trends offer strong evidence of decreases in official misconduct even with limited data. Gross et. al. described in the report the difficulty in measuring change of official misconduct primarily because of the time lag.

The report noted the average time from conviction to exoneration is about 11 years for all exonerations. For murder, the average time is even longer – lasting almost 15 years. And more than 60 murder exonerations happened more than 30 years after conviction.

Therefore, on many issues and for most types of exonerations, it’s simply too early to tell, said the researchers, whether there has been change in the occurrence of misconduct over time. An apparent decline may just reflect a time lag.

These time lags require researchers to wait decades before they can use the data on exonerations to accurately identify changes in official misconduct that have occurred in the past few years.

Yet, the cases for improper questioning of children, misconduct in interrogations, and forensic fraud pose as exceptions. The decline in these misconduct over time is so steep that future cases are unlikely to reverse the trend.

Gross et. al was also able to determine the rate for federal white-collar crime exonerations and those with official misconduct given the limited data. Unlike the previous cases that showed declining trends, federal white-collar prosecutions indicate clear evidence of an increase in official misconduct.

Detecting an increase is easier than detecting a decrease because the time lag is much shorter (an average of 3.6 years), and if anything, the time lag to exonerations means that the researchers may underestimate the true increase in the exonerations.

The study claimed 32 of 46 federal white-collar exonerees were convicted in the 15 years from 2003 through 2017, more than twice as many as the 14 exonerees who were convicted of federal white-collar crimes in the 15 years from 1988 through 2002.

The number of federal white-collar exonerations with official misconduct doubled from the earlier (10) to the later period.

Overall, Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens said, the number of convictions of innocent federal white-collar crime defendants has increased sharply since 2003. Most of the cases involved official misconduct, and all federal white-collar exonerations with misconduct, regardless of time, include misconduct by prosecutors.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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