The U.S. exonerated a record number of people in 2014, according to a new report, continuing a steady increase over the last decade as cultural shifts have made some law enforcement agencies more willing to re-examine long-closed criminal cases.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a project on wrongful convictions at the University of Michigan Law School, recorded 125 exonerations in 2014, up from 91 in both 2013 and 2012, according to totals released Tuesday. “This is part of a long-term trend,” says Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor who wrote the report.
The jump was driven largely by a high concentration of exonerations in three densely-populated counties: Dallas County and Harris County, which includes Houston, in Texas, and Kings County, New York, home to Brooklyn.
In Dallas, a crime lab has been working through a backlog of decades-old cases using DNA testing. In Brooklyn, the district attorney’s office has been investigating dozens of murder charges traced back to a detective accused of manufacturing evidence in the 1980s and '90s. And in Harris County, which had only three recorded exonerations in 2013, there were 33 exonerations related to false guilty pleas in drug cases.
The registry has logged 1,535 exonerations since 1989, with most coming in the last decade. Yet exonerations based on DNA evidence, one of the main sources for the initial rise, have declined. DNA exonerations accounted for 40% of all exonerations in 2005. Last year, researchers say that figure was down to 18% as the supply of old cases with faulty or missing DNA evidence dwindles.
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Gross says that police officers and prosecutors are increasingly willing to cooperate in re-opening old cases, part of what he calls a “cultural shift” toward preventing mistakes that can lead to wrongful convictions.
“Everybody has become more aware that errors can be made,” Gross says. "And I think that after some prosecutors like those in Dallas and Harris County took on this issue, other prosecutors begin to think, that's probably true here and maybe we should do something about it."