A record number of exonerations were recorded in the U.S. in 2013, with 87 people walking free after being wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit — or that never even happened.
Researchers say the findings reflect long-term trends that indicate that judiciary is increasingly willing to consider and act on the types of innocence claims that are often ignored, such as those involving light sentences and in cases where defendants have accepted a plea bargain.
The total for 2013 surpased that of previous high year of 2009, in which 83 people were cleared of convictions, according to the report by the National Registry of Exonerations, a body that was launched in 2012 as a joint project by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
The most noticeable trend was a rise in exonerations for non-violent crimes. But violent crimes, such as murder and sexual assault still account for the majority of exonerations every year.
Researchers say that is because violent crimes types of cases carry more severe sentences and are often more high-profile, attacting greater media attention, for example.
In 2013, 29 exonerations — 33 percent of the total — did not involve either sexual assault or murder, an increase from an average of 24 percent from 2009-2013 and 18 percent from 1989-1998.
These cases include “those without biological evidence or with no actual perpetrator; cases with comparatively light sentences; judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who accepted plea bargains to avoid the risk of extreme punishment after trial,” the report said.
Seventeen percent of 2013 exonerations were cases where defendants pleaded guilty — also a record number as such cases used to be far less common.
“The pressure to plead guilty is huge,” Professor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor who edits the registry, told the Guardian.
The rise in exonerations for those convicted of lesser offenses is despite the fact that non-violent cases and those without DNA evidence require more of an effort to prove, according to the report.
“If there’s DNA from the actual criminal that does not match the defendant, proof of innocence is straightforward; otherwise it’s much harder. It’s harder yet when there’s no way at all to identify the person who actually did it because the defendant was convicted of a crime that didn’t occur,” the report said.
Almost one-third of 2013’s exonerations, 27 of 87, were cases in which no crime actually occurred. And almost half of those were for non-violent crimes – often drug convictions.
Some examples of crimes that didn’t actually occur include a homicide that was really an accident, a sexual assault that never happened, or a non-existent drug crime for which the defendant was framed, according to the report.
“I think this reflects that prosecutors and judges have become more sensitive to the dangers of false accusations and are more willing to consider that a person is innocent even where there is no DNA to test or an alternative perpetrator coming forward,” Gross told the Guardian.
The rise in exonerations for non-violent, drug-related crimes could also be connected to sweeping reforms in the justice system announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in August 2013.
Holder called the system “in too many respects, broken,” and paid particular attention to non-violent drug offenders caught up in the five-decade-old “war on drugs.”
“It’s clear … that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said, calling it unsustainable and an economic burden on the country.
“This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.”
The U.S. is increasingly facing problems related to over-crowding in its prison systems, and the costs associated with housing record numbers of inmates.