More than two-thirds of people exonerated in wrongful conviction investigations last year were Black, including three on death row, according to an annual report from the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE).
The cases included the overturned convictions of two men — Sherwood Brown and Eddie Lee Howard Jr. — who were taken off Mississippi’s death row in separate cases involving doctors who testified to now debunked bite mark evidence. Combined, Brown and Howard served 54 years on death row.
In Los Angeles, Barry Williams was released from death row in a case “riddled with police and prosecutor misconduct,” according to NRE. Witnesses in the murder of 21-year-old Jerome Dunn recanted their testimony and a judge found that the prosecutor failed to turn over evidence to the defense prior to trial. Williams spent 35 years on death row in California, but he will remain in prison to continue serving a sentence of 34 years to life for another homicide.
Those convictions were among 161 that were tossed nationwide last year, according to the NRE report. Since May 2012, the project has recorded 3,060 exonerees. More Black people have been found to be wrongfully convicted than whites: 1,570 Black men and 81 Black women, compared to 897 white men and 147 white women.
There are several factors that contribute to a wrongful conviction, such as prosecutorial misconduct, false confession, and jailhouse informants. The annual report found that, in 2021, official misconduct occurred in at least 102 exonerations, including 77% of murder and manslaughter exonerations.
There are variables of official misconduct that include withholding evidence that is favorable to the defendant, and forensic analysis misconduct, according to the NRE database.
“Official misconduct was found in 42% of the cases in 2012. Now, more than 2,000 cases later, we see official misconduct in 56%,” according to the annual report.
The NRE database has tracked wrongful convictions since 1989 and has a limited number of cases prior to that year. The effort aims to provide detailed information about every wrongful conviction across the country and is maintained by the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law.
The NRE found several factors that are contributing to overturned convictions, including more chief prosecutors establishing variations of “conviction integrity” units to review past convictions when submitted by a defendant or their attorney for consideration.
Of the 161 exonerations that occurred last year -— which includes 103 Black men and five Black women — conviction integrity units helped secure 61 exonerations, according to the annual report. Organizations like the Innocence Project, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization dedicated to uncovering wrongful convictions with the use of DNA evidence, took part in 67 exonerations.
But not all of the more than 2,300 prosecutor’s offices across the country have attorneys dedicated to reviewing past convictions. Since 2002, 93 conviction integrity units have been established in individual prosecutor offices, including six in which the state’s attorney general’s office manages the cases; only 41 have a track record of overturning convictions, according to the NRE.
Since starting its database, the NRE has recorded 133 exonerees who were sentenced to death, including 72 Black men and one Black woman. In 2021, lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts proposed a bill to end the federal death penalty and wrote to former Attorney General Bill Barr to stop the flurry of federal executions in the final weeks of former President Donald Trump’s term.
During his campaign, President Joe Biden expressed support for ending federal executions altogether and giving states an incentive to follow the federal courts. He proposed those on death row should be resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or probation. There are 2,474 people on state death row and 44 men on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
During U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s confirmation hearing in February 2021, he said he was “very concerned” about death penalty cases because of “the large number of exonerations that have occurred through DNA evidence and otherwise, not only in death penalty convictions, but also in other convictions.”
Once confirmed, Garland placed a moratorium on federal executions in July 2021 pending a review of policies and procedures, including the effectiveness of the drug used for lethal injections. The moratorium does not affect state executions.
“I think it’s a terrible thing that occurs when somebody is convicted of a crime that they did not commit,” Garland said at the time. “The most terrible thing happens if someone is executed for a crime that they did not commit.”