A majority of wrongful convictions have been tied to drug possession allegations that were brought on by corrupt police officers who targeted Black people, a new report revealed.
The National Registry of Exonerations tallied 233 exonerations in 2022, of which a majority stemmed from patterns of misconduct by police officers. In addition, NRE researchers found that defendants were wrongly convicted for a number of reasons, including mistaken eyewitness identification and false confessions.
The NRE has tracked wrongful convictions across the country dating back to 1989 and is actively reviewing cases from previous years. To date the organization has documented more than 3,300 overturned convictions, and over half of the exonerees are Black — specifically Black men.
In 2022, Illinois had the most exonerations with 126. Ninety-six of those overturned convictions were tainted by former Chicago police officer Ronald Watts, the NRE report found. From 2003 to 2011, Watts, along with other disgraced officers, planted drugs and weapons on Black people who lived in low-income housing and refused to pay them bribes. Watts, who is Black, pleaded guilty in 2012 and was sentenced to 22 months in federal prison for stealing from a homeless person who was an FBI informant. After Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx was elected to office in 2016 she vowed to vacate the 212 convictions tied to Watts. That mission was completed last year.
The bulk of exonerations out of Illinois are considered no-crime cases.
“These cases include convictions for child abuse where an alleged victim later recants and says the abuse didn’t happen, murder convictions where the deaths were accidents — such as when fires resulting in deaths were mischaracterized as arson based on misleading forensic evidence,” according to the NRE report.
No-crime cases have accounted for more than 40% of the overall exonerations reported by the NRE and are 59% of last year’s cases. Other no-crime drug-related convictions were documented in Harris and Swisher counties in Texas; Camden, New Jersey; and Los Angeles. Most cases had patterns of police misconduct similar to those seen in Chicago, the report found.
Wrongful convictions connected to child sex abuse allegations are one of the most common no-crime cases. Overall, the NRE has recorded 312 exonerations stemming from child sex abuse convictions, where 78% are considered no-crime cases.
Earlier this month, the district attorney’s office in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, overturned the conviction of Patrick Brown, who served 29 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Over the years, the survivor repeatedly insisted Brown wasn’t her attacker, the district attorney’s office said.
One of the most heinous cases of a child sex abuse no-crime conviction and sentence also occurred in Louisiana. Vincent Simmons was released from state prison in February 2022 after wrongfully serving 44 of a 100-year sentence for attempting to rape two teenage girls. Simmons’ trial attorneys did not receive critical evidence that included witness statements and medical records that could have altered the Avoyelles Parish jury’s decision to convict.
The NRE added Simmons last year to the list of 228 men and women who were wrongfully imprisoned for at least 25 years. In total, more than 29,000 years of life were stolen from thousands of people.