Official misconduct is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, study finds
Actions by police officers, including witness tampering, violent interrogations and falsifying evidence, account for majority of the misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions, according to a study released Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations that focused on the role police and prosecutors play in false convictions in the country.
Researchers studied 2,400 known convictions of innocent defendants over a 30-year period and found that 35% of these cases involved some type of misconduct by police. More than half – 54% – involved misconduct by both police and prosecutors.
The findings by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project that collects data on wrongful convictions in the country, come as protests over racial injustice and police brutality engulfed many cities for several months following the May death of George Floyd. Floyd, who was Black, died after a Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, and three others have since been charged. More recently, the police shooting of Jacob Blake sparked days of unrest in Kenosha, Wisc. and has raised questions about whether shooting him was justified. The events researchers analyzed – police misconduct that leads to the convictions and imprisonment of innocent people – are different, but related and often overlooked, said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and one of the authors of the study. Misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions rarely come to light and don’t usually lead to mass protests and a racial reckoning, although they involve the same reliance on secrecy and deception, Gross said.
“The basic underlying truth is if you’re innocent of a crime and you were convicted of it, the chances of it ever coming to light are, first, not great and, second, get worse and worse the less serious a crime it is,” Gross said. “If you’re convicted of a misdemeanor and you’re innocent of it … the chance of anybody caring is very low.”
But, Gross said, “We’re not talking about all police officers or most police officers. What’s disturbing is it happens at all and it happens with some regularity.”
As of Monday, the National Registry of Exonerations has nearly 2,670 people who have been exonerated since 1989, and the list grows regularly.