The U.S. has seen nearly 2,670 people who have been exonerated in the last two decades and now it has emerged that police misconduct is the leading cause of wrongful convictions.
The findings come from a study conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations, which set out to determine the role police misconduct plays in the conviction of innocent people. In order to arrive at the results, researchers analyzed 2,400 cases in which defendants were later found innocent. The cases spanned 30 years and of those, it was discovered that misconduct from police and prosecutors contributed to the false convictions of 54% of defendants who were later exonerated.
The study showed that 35% of the wrongful conviction cases were the result of police misconduct, which included witness tampering, misconduct in interrogation, and fabricating evidence, as well as concealing evidence during trial. A further 30% of the cases saw misconduct by prosecutors who concealed evidence and performed witness tampering.
The National Registry of Exonerations also highlighted a racial disparity in terms of wrongful convictions. Black defendants accounted for 57% of exonerations while 52% of white exonerees have been victim to misconduct. The divide increases with the severity of the alleged crime.
When it came to murder, 78% of black people were wrongfully convicted, compared to 64% of white people. That number increased to 87% to 68% for those with death sentences, and 47% to 22% for drug crimes.
The concealing of evidence is the most common type of misconduct, according to the study, which found that this occurred in 44% of exonerations. Researchers pointed to several rape exonerations, in which authorities concealed evidence that the complainants had a history of making false rape allegations, as well as child sex abuse cases, in which police, prosecutors and child welfare workers concealed statements by alleged victims who said they had not been molested.
Of the exonerations reviewed, only 19% of police officers were disciplined or convicted, while action against prosecutors accounted for 30% of the cases.
Samuel Gross, one of the authors of the study who is also a University of Michigan law professor, noted that the statistics do not apply to all police officers and prosecutors however, that misconduct occurred in the first place was unacceptable.
"We're not talking about all police officers or most police officers," he said, according to USA Today. "What's disturbing is it happens at all and it happens with some regularity.”
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