According to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations, there were 149 people released from incarceration in 2015 after spending 15 years in prison on average for crimes that they did not do. This is a record number of exonerations, and many people in Illinois may be surprised to learn that five of these people were awaiting execution.
The report shows that the crimes these 149 individuals were falsely accused of ranged from low-level offenses to serious felonies. Fifty-four of them were wrongly convicted of murder, and 47 were wrongly imprisoned for drug crimes. Of the homicide convictions, more than 33 percent of the individuals were minorities, and half of them were African Americans. Additionally, 27 of the 149 prison confessed to the charges even though they were innocent. This group comprised of mostly children and mentally handicapped individuals.
One of these men was convicted of an arson in 1981 in which a mother and five children died. The building owner accused him of the arson, and he was convicted despite having an alibi witness. During the 31 years that he spent in prison, he became blind from glaucoma that went untreated. He was released in 2012, but it was not until 2014 that the building owner recanted her accusations. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office reviewed the conviction and exonerated him in December 2015.
Reviewing prior convictions is rather new for prosecutors because they do not traditionally view the reassessment of evidence as part of their job. However, Conviction Integrity Units have been created in District Attorneys' offices throughout the country since the first was created in California in 2002. The focus of these units is to address wrong convictions.
Individuals who find themselves facing charges that range from drug crimes to murder may rely on private detectives to gather evidence and attorneys to develop criminal defense strategies for them. This could lead to the charges being dropped in court.