Black people are about 7½ times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder in the U.S. than are whites, and about 80% more likely to be innocent than others convicted of murder, according to a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations. The already disproportionate risk of wrongful conviction, the Registry found, was even worse if the murder victim in a case was white.

The report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States 2022, reviewed the cases of 3,200 innocent defendants exonerated in the United States since 1989. Black people, the researchers found, were 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted, were more likely to be the targets of police misconduct, and more likely to be imprisoned longer before being exonerated.

Black people were overrepresented in every category of the 1,167 wrongful murder convictions in the Registry’s database. African Americans constituted 56% (74/134) of all death sentenced exonerees; 55% (294/535) of wrongful murder convictions resulting in life imprisonment; and 54% (270/497) of wrongful murder convictions in which exonerees were sentenced to imprisonment for terms of years. “Innocent Black people are about seven-and-a-half times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people,” the Registry reported. That figure, the report noted, “applies equally to those who are sentenced to death and those who are not.”

“The report really shows the depth of the belief that race is a proxy for criminality in the criminal legal system,” Innocence Project Executive Director Christina Swarns said.

The Registry’s review of murder exoneration data found that innocent Black defendants were also more likely to be more harshly punished than innocent white defendants. Among murder exonerees who were not sentenced to death or life imprisonment, Black defendants were sentenced to an average prison term of 35 years. White murder exonerees who were not sentenced to death or life imprisonment were sentenced to an average term of 28 years in prison.

The report also found a “pattern of harsh sentencing for murder convictions with white victims and lighter sentencing for those with Black victims.” This pattern, the Registry found, “is not restricted to death sentences. If they avoid the death penalty, innocent murder defendants in white-victim cases are also more likely to be sentenced to life in prison than those charged with killing Black victims.”

Black people wrongfully convicted of murder also spent longer in prisoner before being exonerated than their white counterparts. Of the 75 innocent death-row defendants who spent 30 years or longer in prison before being exonerated, 67% are Black. “The racial pattern is similar for all murder exonerees, regardless of sentence,” the report notes. “Of the 181 exonerees who spent 25 years or longer in prison before release, 68% are Black; among the ten who lost 40 or more years to prison, it’s 80%.”

Official misconduct was rampant in wrongful murder convictions, and here too Black defendants disproportionally bore the brunt. The report found that “official misconduct is considerably higher among murder exonerations with Black defendants than those with white defendants, 78% (500/638) compared to 64% (236/369).” The overall rate of misconduct was higher in capital cases: 78% as opposed to 73% in non-capital murder convictions. Here, too, there were significant racial disparities: “85% (63/74) of Black exonerees who were sentenced to death were victims of official misconduct, compared to 70% (32/46) of white death-row exonerees,” the researchers found.

The report contained a somber warning about cases in which innocence has remained undetected or, if brought to the court’s attention has been left uncorrected. “Most innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are not exonerated,” the Registry reported. “Judging from the rate of false conviction among death sentences,… several thousand defendants have been falsely convicted of murder in America in the past 40 years …, more than half of them were Black.”


Samuel Gross, et al., Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States 2022, National Registry of Exonerations, September 27, 2022; Melissa Noel, Study: Black Americans More Likely To Be Wrongfully Convicted, Essence, September 29, 2022; Marquise Francis, Black peo­ple are being false­ly con­vict­ed of seri­ous crimes at alarm­ing rates, report finds, Yahoo News, September 27, 2022; Hassan Kanu, Rising num­ber of false con­vic­tions shows stark racial pat­terns, Reuters, September 27, 2022; Alana Wise, Black prison exonerees out­pace white coun­ter­parts, study says, NPR, September 272022.