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Innocent Americans spent at least 10,000 years in jail

Published time: May 21, 2012 16:56
Edited time: May 21, 2012 20:56
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP

The US Constitution guarantees a fair trial, but the number of Americans that will argue otherwise is incredible. At least 2,000 people have been sentenced to prison for crimes in the last 23 years, only to eventually be exonerated by the court.

As shocking as it may be, until now there has been no official database of information pertaining to Americans wrongfully convicted of crimes only to be exonerated down the road. As a result, researchers at the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law took it upon themselves to change all that and have just now rolled out a database that examines exonerations in America and the findings are astounding. Taking into account as much information as obtainable dating back to 1989, more than 2,000 people have been sentenced to time behind bars for crimes that the court would later say they did not commit.

Scanning barely two decades of available info, researchers have found a trove of information detailing 873 well-documented exoneration cases. Of just those, the time spent behind bars totals to more than 10,000 years in prison. The creators of the database have found proof of roughly 1,200 separate exonerations during the same time span, although less information at this point is available.

So far the results offer an uncensored look at the falsities of the US justice system, and, sadly, the researchers feel like they are only just beginning to dive into the data.

"We know there are many more that we haven't found," University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross tell the Associated Press of his findings.

Although the database only contains a limited amount of information for now, Gross says that it is a critical starting point for reexamining the mistakes that mare the justice system in the United States.

"This is useful, because if we want to prevent false convictions, we have to learn how we make mistakes," Gross adds to McClatchy.

Of the trends identified so far in their research, the group behind the database has found that, in nine out of 10 cases, exonerated ex-cons are male and half are African American. Roughly half of the 873 exonerations were homicide cases and over one-third were convictions for sexual assaults.

Of just the 873 sample size, 101 of the convicts eventually exonerated were sentenced to death. The number of Americans that may have been proved innocent if it wasn’t for a state-sanctioned execution could have easily skyrocketed that statistic to an even more alarming number.

In all, Gross says that the number of exonerated Americans dating back to the 1980s exceed 2,000, but they purposely excluded more than half of that figure due convictions that were canned because of known law enforcement corruption. The report reveals that there is information pertaining to an additional 1,170 defendants that only came up as an accident and as “a byproduct of searches for individual cases.”

"Some of these group exonerations are well known; most are comparatively obscure,” reads the report.

Regardless of what factor forced researchers to cast them aside, many involved cases where cops either planted drugs, guns or other weapons to get unlawful arrests, only to later be caught.

Of the nearly 900 cases that are well documented, however, Gross and company say that they’ve found many common factors among them. If half of those cases, the most common tie was either perjured testimony or false accusations. Around 43 percent of the cases involved eyewitnesses mistook the identity of alleged criminals and almost a quarter of the cases included false or misleading evidence.

"[T]here's usually someone to blame for the underlying tragedy, often more than one person, and the common culprits include defense lawyers as well as police officers, prosecutors and judges. In many cases, everybody involved has egg on their face," reads the report.