Texas in 2013 exonerated more people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes than any other state, according to a new report from the National Registry of Exonerations.
Thirteen Texans were officially absolved of wrongdoing last year for crimes ranging from murder to drug possession. Some had spent more than a decade in prison, and others a few months. The state with the second-most exonerations was Illinois, with nine, followed by New York, with eight.
The national registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, was launched in 2012. It tracks every known exoneration in the United States since 1989. Texas has 133 exonerations listed. Only New York, with 152, and California, with 136, have more.
The project’s directors stress that many more wrongful convictions never make the list.
“There are many false convictions that we don’t know about,” said Samuel Gross, editor of the registry and co-author of the report. “The exonerations we know about are only the tip of the iceberg.”
The report found that while the number of exonerations in 2013 was a record high (87 across the country), the percentage based on DNA evidence dropped. Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director for the Texas Defender Service, called that finding notable because it indicates a growing number of exonerations in cases other than murder and sexual assault.
She said the report demonstrates the importance of high-quality defense in all criminal trials. The registry attributes “inadequate legal defense” as a contributing factor to four of the 13 wrongful convictions.
“It’s not so much about good lawyers versus bad lawyers,” Bernhardt said. “Every time the court doesn’t give you the resources you need for investigations, you lose the tools necessary to prove that your client either wasn’t guilty or deserves mercy.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called exonerations a “shameful category” for Texas to lead. Ellis, who has authored legislation aimed at preventing wrongful convictions, including last year’s Michael Morton Act, called on the state to provide higher quality legal representation to the poor.
“Unfortunately, in everyday Texas, quality of justice is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford,” he said.
The registry does not track exonerees by income, but it includes a racial/ethnic breakdown of known wrongful convictions. At 47 percent of exonerees, blacks are overrepresented, while whites and Hispanics make up 40 and 11 percent, respectively.
Others have called for tougher punishments against prosecutors who behave unethically in order to reduce wrongful convictions. They point to cases like that of Kenneth Wayne Boyd Jr., who was convicted in 1999 of a triple murder and sentenced to life in prison. Boyd appealed, and more than a decade later, in 2013, Texas’ highest criminal court exonerated him, ruling that his prosecutor had suppressed favorable evidence and knowingly presented false evidence.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who last year authored Senate Bill 825, which extends the period of time during which an exoneree can file grievances against his or her prosecutor, said it was important that all parties have an incentive to avoid misconduct.
“How about some accountability for district attorneys?” asked Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “Good DAs don’t mind it.”
The registry lists “official misconduct” as a contributing factor in two of Texas’ exonerations last year.
Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said that prosecutorial misconduct accounted for just a “fraction” of wrongful convictions. According to the report, many cases in 2013 relied on faulty forensic evidence, often related to drug testing.
“Half of these cases could have been avoided if we’d just had the resources to do testing on these substances up front,” Edmonds said.
“To ensure that the system works as it’s intended, both sides have to have good advocates to investigate the cases,” he added.
Compared to the roughly 1 million criminal cases processed in Texas each year, Edmonds called the 13 known wrongful convictions a “pretty small number.”
“And yet, even one is too many,” he said. “We strive for perfection.”