Sep 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Report: Black Americans more likely to be wrongfully convicted

Photo illustration of an open jail cell door, unlocked handcuffs, and a clock.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Black Americans are seven times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of serious crimes, and spend longer in prison before exoneration, a new report shows.

The big picture: The study, from the National Registry of Exonerations, examined defendants who were exonerated after serving at least part of a sentence — sometimes spending decades in prison.

Details: Black people represent 13.6% of the American population, but account for 53% of 3,200 exonerations in the registry as of August 8, 2022, according to the report.

  • Innocent Black Americans are about seven-and-a-half times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people, the study found.
  • The convictions that led to murder exonerations of Black defendants were almost 50% more likely to include misconduct by police officers.

What we're watching: The number of murder exonerations is increasing. Many of the recent exonerees are Black murder defendants who spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.

  • Most of these long-serving Black murder defendants were exonerated by a handful of big city prosecutorial conviction integrity units (CIUs). More are likely on the way.

What they're saying: "Black people are over-represented to a greater or lesser extent among exonerations for all major crime categories listed in the Registry, except white-collar crimes," the report says.

  • "There is no one explanation for the heavy concentration of Black defendants among those convicted of crimes they did not commit."
  • "The causes we have identified run from inevitable consequences of patterns in crime and punishment to deliberate acts of racism, with many steps in between."

The report did not examine wrongful convictions and exonerations of Asian, Indigenous. or Latino defendants. The data required for that analysis is often unreliable, the authors said.

Context: A Baltimore City judge last week vacated the conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the popular "Serial" podcast, which cast doubt on his conviction in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee.

  • The case has highlighted the difficulty defendants face in arguing for their innocence — and as the new report shows, the justice system can be extremely slow to correct its mistakes, especially for people of color.

What's next: HBO Documentary Films announced last week it is in production on a follow-up episode to the critically acclaimed, four-part documentary series, "The Case Against Adnan Syed."

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