2019 Exoneration Report: Official Misconduct and Perjury Remain Leading Causes of Wrongful Homicide Convictions

Official misconduct and perjury or false accusation continue to be the main reasons innocent men and women are wrongfully convicted in America, according to the 2019 annual report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That misconduct, the report indicates, is most prevalent in cases involving the most serious criminal charges.

The registry reported on March 31, 2020 that 143 men and women were exonerated in 2019 following wrongful convictions across the United States. More than half (76) involved wrongful convictions for homicide, including three people who had been sentenced to death, and other cases in which innocent defendants had been capitally tried, defendants threatened with the death penalty had falsely confessed, or witnesses threatened with the death penalty had provided testimony falsely implicating innocent defendants.

Perjury or false accusation was present in 101 of the 143 exonerations (70.6%), making it the most prevalent factor in the 2019 exonerations, largely because of 14 exonerations in which a Chicago police sergeant had planted drugs on suspects he had arrested. Even then, perjury or false accusation was more pronounced in homicide cases, where it was present 76.3% of the time (58 of 76 cases), as compared with 43 of 67 (64.2%) non-homicide cases.

Official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government actors — most commonly in the form of withholding exculpatory evidence — was the next most frequent contributing factor in the 2019 exonerations, occurring in nearly two-thirds of all exonerations (93 of 143). Again, misconduct was more pronounced in the wrongful homicide convictions, in which it was 1.4 times more likely to occur. Misconduct was present in three-quarters of homicide exonerations (57 of 76 cases), compared to slightly more than half (36 of the 67, 53.7%) of the wrongful conviction for crimes other than homicide.

The report noted that exonerations in 2019 involved a record number of years lost to incarceration – the 143 exonerees spent a total of 1,908 years in prison. This pattern was reflected in the death-row exonerations that took place last year, which included two prisoners who each spent more than 40 years wrongfully incarcerated and a third who was on death row for 26 years.

Barbara O’Brien, the report’s author, emphasized the prevalence of wrongful convictions throughout the legal system, and the importance the issue has taken on during the current pandemic. “Right now, there are likely thousands of innocent people in U.S. jails and prisons as a result of wrongful convictions. It is hard to imagine the horror of being incarcerated today — innocent or guilty — as the COVID-19 virus is spreading through these closed spaces and threatening lives,” she said.

The report spotlighted several 2019 exonerations linked to the misuse of the death penalty. Clifford Williams, Jr. was sentenced to death in Florida in 1976 and spent 42 years in prison before the Duval County Conviction Integrity Unit reinvestigated his case and found “no credible evidence of guilt and … credible evidence of innocence.” No physical evidence linked Williams to the crime, and witness accounts contradicted the ballistics evidence in the case. Williams’ defense counsel had presented no witnesses, ignoring 40 alibi witnesses who could have testified that Williams was at a birthday party at the time of the crime. Like the vast majority of Florida death-row exonerees, Williams’ jury had not voted unanimously for death; in fact, his trial judge overrode a jury recommendation of a life sentence.

Charles Ray Finch also was sentenced to death in 1976. Finch’s case involved both leading causes of wrongful convictions: official misconduct and perjury. Police in Wilson County, North Carolina obtained witness identification of Finch through suggestive lineups and the prosecution presented false testimony linking Finch to a weapon that did not actually match the one used in the murder. Several prosecution witnesses later testified that they had been pressured into giving false testimony.

The year’s third death-row exoneration, that of Christopher Williams in Pennsylvania, was the result of official misconduct and false accusation by a self-interested informant. Philadelphia prosecutors deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence. The key prosecution witness cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for avoiding capital prosecution for six different murders. Williams’ case was one of thirteen homicide exonerations in Philadelphia in 2019, and one of nine aided by investigations by the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit.

Other cases referenced in the report involved the use or threat of the death penalty. Robert Yell was exonerated in Kentucky of the arson-related murder of his son. In mid-March 2020, he filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that law enforcement framed him. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty in the case but withdrew it at the start of Yell’s trial. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 52 years, but his attorneys say the evidence against him was fabricated and that law enforcement hid evidence that the fire was caused by a faulty electrical outlet. Christopher Tapp was exonerated in Idaho after a recording came to light that revealed police had told Tapp he faced the death penalty if he didn’t confess, lied to him that he had failed polygraph tests, suggested he had repressed memories of the killing, and offered him leniency — including possible immunity — for implicating others. Florida exoneree Ronald Stewart was posthumously cleared of the murder of Regina Harrison, which he had confessed to under threat of a death sentence. His case was re-examined after Jack Jones, who was executed in Arkansas in 2017, sent a letter to his sister confessing to Harrison’s murder. After Florida police deemed Harrison’s case closed, Jones went on to commit an additional rape and murder.

DPIC is conducting a deeper analysis of the 2019 exonerations to determine the extent to which the death penalty is implicated in obtaining false confessions or false witness testimony. The DPIC exoneration analysis is expected to be released before April 10.

Sources

Annual Report, National Registry of Exonerations, March 31, 2020; Justin Story, Lawsuit accus­es offi­cers of fram­ing Logan man for mur­der, Bowling Green Daily News, March 212020.

Read the Press Release from the National Registry of Exonerations.