New national registry lists exonerations from wrongful convictions

travel destinationsThe original metal bars on the windows at the old Jackson State Prison. | Mike Brookbank/Detroit Free Press

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Obie Anthony served hard time in California prisons for a crime he didn’t commit.

He’s not alone, and he’s not forgotten. Anthony is one of nearly 900 exonerated former prisoners whose wrenching stories are wrapped into a new database. TheNational Registry of Exonerations, being formally unveiled Monday, is the largest of its kind, and it will get bigger over time.

“This is useful, because if we want to prevent false convictions, we have to learn how we make mistakes,” Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law School professor, said in an interview.

Gross is the editor of the registry, a joint project of the Michigan law school and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. By compiling detailed information about an initial 891 exonerations that have been identified since 1989, the organizers say they already have begun to identify disturbing patterns.

Perjury from witnesses was found to be the biggest problem for those wrongfully convicted of murder, the database shows. Mistakes by eyewitnesses are almost always the cause of wrongful rape convictions. In either case, the consequences are severe. About half of the exonerated individuals had been in prison for at least 10 years; 75 percent served five years or more.

Anthony, for instance, was 19 years old in August 1995, when he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole after his conviction in a Los Angeles murder. He served 17 years, mostly at Folsom State Prison, until he was released last October when a belated investigation revealed that the prosecution’s chief witness, a pimp, had perjured himself. Once Anthony was freed, prosecutors declined to try him again.

“I always knew that I would get out,” Anthony told Loyola University Law School students in a videotaped speech last fall. “It was about being able to feel it, and to walk through those gates with dignity . . . and to be able to anticipate the day it was going to happen.”

Some aren’t so lucky.

Ten of the individuals listed were exonerated after they’d died. Timothy Brian Cole, for instance, died in a Texas prison in 1999 while he was serving a 25-year sentence after he was convicted of raping a Texas Tech University student. The real culprit later confessed, and a Texas judge formally exonerated Cole in 2009.

About one-third of the exonerations involved DNA evidence.

Illinois leads all states in the number of exonerations, with 101, followed by New York, Texas and California.

“We have enough cases, and enough variety of cases, that we can begin to see patterns,” Gross said.

In some cases, the exoneration data reflects a specific and widespread miscarriage of justice.

California’s rural Kern County, for instance, ranked fourth among all counties nationwide, with 20 exonerations. All these exonerations stemmed from a series of child abuse prosecutions undertaken in the mid-1980s; the alleged victims later recanted their testimony.

Disturbingly, the database also identifies 71 individuals who were exonerated of crimes to which they’d ended up pleading guilty.

The database still captures only a slice of the exonerated population. All told, more than 2,000 exonerations have been identified since 1989. Many of these, totaling 1,170, involved individuals whose names were cleared in “group exonerations” after revelations of police corruption, including the plantings of guns and drugs.

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