Nearly a quarter of a century after DNA testing was used to prove that a defendant had been falsely convicted of a crime, the American public has become familiar with the phenomenon and how the script plays out in our courtrooms.
The exonerated defendant stands before a judge and is informed that the conviction is vacated and the charges are dismissed. And then the former inmate —more than 100 have come from Death Row — is joined by family members and lawyers in a celebration on the courthouse steps.
Yes, it is a joyous occasion to step from behind prison bars after years — as many as 30 years in one case —of being locked up for a crime that was not committed.
But, as a report issued Monday by the National Registry of Exonerations  makes clear, behind every one of these jubilant moments are tragedies, some of them of enormous proportion.
The report documents nearly 900 individual cases of exoneration. Combined, these (mostly) men and women served more than 10,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. In fact, in more than 100 cases, there was no crime at all — accidents were mischaracterized as murders and crimes were just concocted based on a web of lies and falsehoods.
In addition, the report notes that the Registry has uncovered more than 1,100 additional exonerations that were the result of 13 police corruption scandals.
As the author of the report, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross notes: “On TV, an exoneration looks like a singular victory for a criminal defense attorney; you imagine that the lawyer would want to celebrate and get credit for it. But there’s usually someone to blame for the underlying tragedy, often more than one person, and the common culprits include defense lawyers as well as police officers, prosecutors and judges. In many cases, everybody involved has egg on their face.”
The falsely convicted have years wiped out of their lives. Some died in prison.
The families of the falsely convicted were torn asunder and shunned by acquaintances.
In 2001, while working as an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune, fellow reporter Steve Mills and I turned up new evidence of innocence in the case of four teenagers convicted of murdering a medical student in Chicago. Ultimately, the four were exonerated and the three who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole were freed (the fourth had pleaded guilty and testified for the state in return for a reduced sentence).
But not before we interviewed them in prison. One of them, Calvin Ollins, was just 14 when he was arrested and falsely convicted. More than a dozen years later, we spoke with him at the Joliet Correctional Center and asked him about his family. He explained that none of his family came to visit him and that even his mother had stopped writing to him.
Why is that, Calvin? I asked.
His response was no less devastating because of his matter of fact delivery.
“Because they think I did it,” he said.
Gross put it this way in his ground-breaking report:
“The tragedies are not limited to the exonerated defendants themselves, or to their families and friends. In most cases they were convicted of vicious crimes in which other innocent victims were killed or brutalized. Many of the victims who survived were traumatized all over again, years later, when they learned that the criminal who had attacked them had not been caught and punished after all, and that they themselves may have played a role in condemning an innocent person. In many cases, the real criminals went on to rape or kill other victims, while the innocent defendants remained in prison.”
The Registry is a step — the most significant collection of data on false convictions ever assembled — toward reforming the criminal justice system.
As Gross notes:
"The most important conclusion of this Report is that there are far more false convictions than exonerations. That should come as no surprise. The essential fact about false convictions is that they are generally invisible: if we could spot them, they’d never happen in the first place. Why would anyone suppose that the small number of miscarriages of justice that we learn about years later – like the handful of fossils of early hominids that we have discovered – is anything more than an insignificant fraction of the total?”
The players in the criminal justice system should take heed.
There will be those across the United States who will suggest that even the number of more than 2,000 exonerations is insignificant in the face of the millions of convictions obtained each year. But for all of those exonerated, there is just one significant number.
The number one.
Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and investigative researcher on issues of criminal justice. He is working as a researcher and writer for the Registry.Maurice is the author of several books including his latest, Hitler in the Crosshairs: A G.I.'s Story of Courage and Faith . Follow him on Twitter @MauricePossley.