How Often Do Wrongful Convictions Involve Black Defendants?

Fortunately for anyone who has ever been accused of committing a crime, accusations and hearsay are simply not enough: evidence must establish guilt “beyond reasonable doubt.” This system is intended to give victims an opportunity to seek justice and tell their stories, while simultaneously protecting innocent defendants from being punished for crimes they never committed.

But the system also has a critical weakness: it can only function as intended when objectivity prevails. When corruption, carelessness, or racial prejudice interferes, the consequences can be devastating to the defendants and their families.

Perhaps nowhere is this alarming phenomenon more apparent than in New York City. Over the course of 2014, numerous lawsuits have been filed against the city by wrongfully convicted criminal defendants – a disproportionate number of whom are Black. This year alone, plaintiffs filing civil suits against the city have included the “Central Park Five,” who were collectively imprisoned for 41 years for the rape of Trisha Meili; Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for a murder someone else committed; and Jonathan Fleming, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 25 years, also for murder.

How have wrongful convictions historically been broken down by race?

National Registry of Exonerations Reports Disproportionately High Numbers for Black Defendants

Let’s begin by looking at the general numbers. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a total of 87 exonerations were documented in 2013. These exonerations spanned a wide variety of both violent and nonviolent offenses, ranging from drug possession to assault to murder – yet the same cannot be said of the recorded racial distribution.

“Black defendants constitute 25% of prisoners incarcerated for rape,” according to the Registry, “but 61% of those exonerated for such crimes.” The five men who comprised the Central Park Five, for example, represent only a tiny fraction of this number.

The increasing prevalence of DNA testing over the years has played a crucial role in clearing charges for previously convicted “criminals.” The first DNA exoneration documented in the United States took place on August 14, 1989, clearing 22-year-old Gary Dotson of the alleged rape of Cathleen Crowell (who later admitted to fabricating her accusations and inflicting her own injuries). The National Registry currently cites a total of 1,417 exonerations – the majority of which are attributed to Black defendants.

By the Registry’s own statistics broken down by race and crime, total exonerations for “all crimes” numbered 164 for Hispanic persons, 556 for Caucasian persons, and 662 for Black persons. The largest gap is associated with sexual assault (a difference of 78 exonerations), with the second largest belonging to homicide (a difference of 59 exonerations).

But what about other data sources?

Garrett Study: “Among the Innocent Group, 71% Were Minorities”

In June of 2012, four researchers from Washington D.C.’s Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, released a research report titled “Post-Conviction DNA Testing and Wrongful Conviction.” The report was funded by US Department of Justice (DOJ). What were its statistical findings?

According to Table 9 of the report, which compares various demographics among determinate and indeterminate(please define)sexual assault convictions, Black offenders constituted 56% of indeterminate convictions whereas Caucasian offenders accounted for 43%. Regarding determinate convictions, Black offenders made up 61%, while Caucasians made up 39%.

The study does later state, “We found no evidence of variation in the likelihood of exculpatory DNA testing results across many tested combinations of convicted offender/victim race and age compositions.”

However, it also points to studies which came to the opposite conclusion – namely a 2008 exoneration study conducted by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett.

The website of the University of Virginia School of Law summarizes the racial element of the Garrett study’s findings, stating, “[Among] the innocent group… 71% were minorities. The vast majority of exonerated rape convicts (73%) were black or Hispanic, while studies show only about 37% of rape convicts are minorities. […] In the entire innocence group, only eight pled guilty.”

Another comprehensive study which presents similarly bleak findings is “African Americans Wrongly Convicted of Sexual Assault Against Whites: Eyewitness Error and Other Case Features,” published by the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice in 2013. Its overview states that in addition to “erroneous eyewitness identification,” “Other factors that contributed to the wrongful convictions were coerced false confessions, all-White juries, discounted alibis, misconduct by officials, flawed expert testimony, and hue-and-cry circumstances.”

For further reading, refer to “Exonerations in the United States 1989-2012,” compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations.