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Study Shows Record Number Of Criminal Exonerations06:43Download

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The number of exonerations of people wrongfully convicted of a crime in the United States rose to a record 87 last year — that's 87 people who served time in prison for a crime they did not commit. The previous record was 83 in 2009.

Further, a fifth of those people had pleaded guilty to the charges against them, often to receive a lesser sentence, and sometimes due to police coercion and fear.

The report was released today by the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, told Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson that while it is a record number, it's still a "very small number" of people.

"The great majority of people who are innocently convicted are never exonerated because they are never discovered," he said.

Interview Highlights: Samuel Gross

On the reasons behind the high number of exonerations

"One thing, it wasn't with DNA. The number of DNA exonerations, which a lot of people think are all of the exonerations that occur, but that number’s actually been slowly decreasing for the last 10 years. The number of non-DNA exonerations has doubled in the same period. So the question is, why all of these new non-DNA exonerations? And I think the general answer is that everybody — the general public, but in particular all of the participants in the criminal justice system, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges — we've all become more aware of the danger of false conviction. And more willing to invest the effort and time to reexamine cases in which innocent people may have been convicted. And, if necessary, to reverse the cases and try to correct them."

Why many innocent people plead guilty to crimes

"This isn’t surprising in one sense, because the vast majority of defendants who are convicted of felonies plead guilty instead of going to trial, almost always in return for plea bargains. The reason they do is obvious. If you are offered a plea bargain, the deal might be plead guilty and get one year in prison, or six months in the county jail. Well in the same crime, if you reject the plea bargain and go to trial and are then convicted, you might get five years in prison, 10 years, maybe 25 years in prison. What this reflects is that they’re getting more realistic. And were recognizing that in some cases, even an innocent person will take that sort of deal rather than risk the extreme danger of going to trial."

Guest

  • Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

This segment aired on February 4, 2014.

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