Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States
Date:  03-24-2017

At only 13 percent of the population African Americans counted for 47 percent of exonerations as of 2016
From the introduction of Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States by National Registry of Exonerations, University of Michigan Law School:

Race is central to every aspect of criminal justice in the United States. The conviction of innocent defendants is no exception. As of October 15, 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations listed 1,900 defendants who were convicted of crimes and later exonerated because they were innocent; 47% of them were African Americans, three times their rate in the population. About 1,900 additional innocent defendants who had been framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals were cleared in “group exonerations;” the great majority of those defendants were also black. Judging from the cases we know, a substantial majority of innocent people who are convicted of crimes in the United States are African Americans. What explains this stark racial disparity? We study that question by examining exonerations for murder, sexual assault and drug crimes, the three types of crime that that produce the largest numbers of exonerations.2 What we see—as so often in considering the role of race in America— is complex and disturbing, familiar but frequently ignored.

There is no one explanation for the heavy concentration of black defendants among those convicted of crimes they did not commit. The causes we have identified run from inevitable consequences of patterns in crime and punishment to deliberate acts of racism, with many stops in between. They differ sharply from one type of crime to another.

A major cause of the high number of black murder exonerations is the high murder rate in the black community—a tragedy that kills many African Americans and sends many others to prison. Exonerated defendants go to prison, but not because they deserve to; they, like those who are killed, are innocent victims of crimes committed by others. But homicide rates alone do not explain the high number of African Americans who were falsely convicted of murder or the length of time they spent in prison before release. Misconduct and discrimination also played major parts.

Most innocent African American defendants who were exonerated for sexual assault had been convicted of raping white women. The leading cause of these false convictions was mistaken eyewitness identifications—a notoriously error-prone process when white Americans are asked to identify black strangers. As with murder exonerations, however, the leading cause is far from the only one. We see clear evidence of racial bias, ranging from unconscious bias to explicit racism. And, as with murder if not more so, black sexual assault exonerees spent more time in prison than their white counterparts.

Prosecutions for drug offenses take a different path from murder and rape cases. A murder or rape investigation is initiated when a violent crime is reported to the police, usually by a victim, or when a dead body is found. Drug transactions and drug possession have no immediate victims. With rare exceptions, drug investigations are initiated by the police themselves, who go searching for crimes that are almost never reported. The police have essentially unlimited discretion to choose how and where to enforce drug laws, and against whom, which opens the door to pervasive discrimination. We see the effects in two settings. In routine drug possession cases, African Americans are more likely than whites to be convicted by mistake because—guilty or innocent— they are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested. Some false drug convictions, however, are not mistakes. African Americans are also the main targets in a shocking series of scandals in which police officers systematically framed innocent defendants for drug crimes that never occurred. Continue reading