Exoneration: the act of officially absolving someone from blame or vindication, as in when a conviction for a crime is reversed.
In a nation known for locking up a sizable part of its population – 22 percent of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S. alone – new numbers indicate more Americans were exonerated last year than ever before. Texas is leading the way, and not just by a few cases.
Law professor Sam Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School, says this year has seen a record-number of exonerations – 149 nationwide. Gross says the general concern about the problem of convicting innocent people has seen departments devote more resources to investigating possible cases.
“In the past few years, there’s been a sharp increase of number of exonerations that are brought about by conviction integrity units in prosecutors’ offices,” he says, “and on that score, Texas leads the way.”
More than a third of the total exonerations in the country come from Texas, with a large majority of them from Harris County. Though Texas has executed more people than any other state, he says that’s “not a full description of Texas.”
“Texas has, in many ways, a progressive and enlightened criminal justice system,” Gross says.
Texas has the best compensation program for wrongful conviction and “active” prosecutors’ offices that identify and remedy false convictions, starting in 2007 in Dallas County and later in Harris County, he says.
Gross says 72 of the false convictions in Harris County were related to illegal drug possession and after lab reports came back that no drugs had been seized from those people, the convictions were reversed.
“From what I hear, that’ll keep going, because they’re working through a large backlog of cases where this happened,” he says.
A number of cases were also false convictions of murder, with many of them concentrated in Brooklyn, New York. A total of 17 people were exonerated in New York and 13 in Illinois. Gross says that the exonerations from last year were “heavily concentrated” in counties where prosecutors’ offices had officers concerned with rooting false convictions out.
“That’s only a few counties out of thousands of counties in the country,” he says. “If what was going on Harris County happened across the country, we would identify many more of these cases. What we see now is a beginning.”
“The exonerations that we saw last year