African-Americans more likely to be wrongfully convicted

Toni Houston
March 8, 2017

While blacks represent 13% of the United States population, they represent a whopping 47% of the 1,900 exonerations in the registry.

A new study has found that Harris County leads the country in exonerations, turning loose 48 people in 2016 alone. These were mostly drug cases but also some child sex abuse cases. And when white victims are involved, part of the problem may be the difficulties inherent in cross-racial identifications.

A report from the National Registry of Exonerations shows a record number of wrongfully convicted people were cleared across the country past year, including four Virginians. Much of the racial disparity in sexual assault convictions is related to white victims who mistakenly identify black assailants.

The study also said black Americans were about seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white Americans.

Chillingly, black prisoners later exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted were 22% more likely to have been targeted by police misconduct, a function of everything from malevolent individual racism by law enforcement and prosecutors to institutional discrimination.

A record number of people, at least 166, were exonerated previous year after being wrongly convicted of crimes, according to the most recent annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations. According to the study, imprisoned African Americans are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims.

Based on exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict.


While African Americans make up about 13 percent of the US population, half of all defendants exonerated for murder are black ― a rate seven times that for innocent whites.

The study found misconduct in 76 percent of cases that resulted in black murder defendants going to prison for crimes they did not commit, compared to just 65 percent of the cases in which white defendants were wrongfully convicted. Blacks are more frequently stopped, searched, arrested, and convicted-including in cases in which they are innocent. The researchers stress that their data likely does not cover all innocent people in prison, given that there are likely thousands of innocent people in prison who have yet to be - or never will be - exonerated. Hispanic men were 1.7 times more likely than whites to be killed by officers.

The primary reason for the drug crime disparity is that police enforce drug laws more vigorously against the black community, according to the report.

"I think the big takeaway for us is that every case of wrongful conviction has to be seriously considered because it shapes the public's trust in our system", Ogg said.

"Harris County is extremely valuable for our research because it's an unusual example of something you wouldn't otherwise see", said Samuel Gross, a University of MI law professor and senior editor of the study.

The report found a range of factors leading to wrongful convictions, including including government misconduct, false guilty pleas by innocent people, and situations where it was later determined that no crime was committed. The other three Virginia cases were two members of the "Norfolk Four", and a Crozet man wrongly convicted of murder. "They constitute 47% of the 1,900 [total] exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016)". It was the third consecutive year with a record number of exonerations. A study published three years ago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that, conservatively, about 4% of people on death rows were likely wrongfully convicted.

Other reports by Ligue1talk

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