While they do not enjoy a high profile in criminal courts throughout the nation, they do play a key role in securing justice for those wrongly convicted.
They are known as professional exonerators. Plying their respective trades in an ever-growing number of conviction integrity units and innocence organizations nationwide, they have been a part of a growing number of exonerations. The National Registry’s annual report revealed that they played a key role in securing more than 61 percent of the 129 exonerations in 2020.
Conviction integrity units are becoming a growth industry. Eight were added last year, with another five opening up in 21. Currently, the number of units is 79, with more coming. A statewide unit is located in Michigan.
Specific statistics on exonerations reveal the following:
- Eighty-seven exonerations – slightly more than two-thirds – resulted from official misconduct, with the most common being police and prosecutors not disclosing evidence that proves a defendant’s innocence.
- Exonerated defendants from 2020 spent nearly 1,750 years in prison following their convictions; per exoneree, the average was more than 13 years, an average of 13.4 years lost per exoneree.
- Official misconduct occurred in at least 87 exonerations, a little more than two-thirds of the cases, the most frequent misconduct being a failure to disclose exculpatory evidence by police officers or prosecutors a total of 79 times.
- Nineteen – or 15 percent – of exonerations were the result of DNA testing after defendants were convicted.
- Illinois had the highest number of exonerations at 22 due to one police officer who planted drugs on state residents who refused to pay bribes; Illinois was second with 22, Michigan had 20, and Texas exonerated 15 criminal defendants.
The growing number of conviction integrity units that are established or reactivated results in an increase in exonerations. Proponents want to see the program in every county throughout the nation with the hopes of bringing exonerations into the thousands.