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Exonerations in the United States, 1989-2003

NCJ Number
Samuel R. Gross; Kristen Jacoby; Daniel J. Matheson; Nicholas Montgomery; Sujata Patil
Date Published
April 2004
36 pages
This study examined the overall patterns of exonerations in the United States between 1989 and 2003.
Since the 1989 exoneration of Gary Dotson for his 1979 conviction of rape, DNA technology has significantly boosted the number of exonerations in the United States. Exonerations reviewed for this study occurred in four ways: (1) pardons from Governors based on evidence of the defendant’s innocence; (2) acquitted at retrial; (3) criminal charges dismissed by courts upon revelation of new evidence; and (4) posthumously acknowledged innocence. The study was undertaken to learn about the pattern of exonerations, the causes of false convictions, and the operation of the criminal justice system in general. While this analysis of exonerations is the most comprehensive compilation available, it is not exhaustive due primarily to the fragmented nature of criminal justice in the United States. Moreover, it does not include at least 135 individuals who were cleared in 2 mass exonerations after it was discovered they had been framed by rogue police officers. Key findings revealed a total of 328 exonerations between 1989 and 2003. Of these exonerations, 316 were men and 12 were women; 145 were cleared by DNA evidence. An average of 10 years was spent in prisons for crimes these individuals were later exonerated of and four defendants were exonerated posthumously, after dying in prison. The rate of exonerations climbed during the study period from an average of 10 per year through the early 1990’s to an average of 43 per year after 2000. From 1999 on, approximately half of exonerations have been the result of DNA evidence. A full 97 percent of exonerations were for the crimes of murder and rape, mainly due to the use of DNA technology. Nearly 90 percent of false rape convictions were based on eye witness misidentifications, with racial misidentification posing a special danger. Perjury was the leading cause of false murder convictions, followed by false confessions. Regarding juvenile exonerations, 9 out of every 10 exonerated juveniles were Black or Hispanic. It is difficult to estimate the true number of individuals affected by miscarriages of justice in the United States; as more technologies are developed, such as DNA identification technology, the list of exonerated defendants will continue to rise. Figures, tables, appendix