California ranks among the five states with the most 2013 exonerations

California, which has had more DNA exonerations than all but one state, was one of the five states with the greatest number of these exonerations in 2013.

To many people in Torrance, wrongful convictions may seem like relatively rare occurrences or even anomalies. Unfortunately, both research and anecdotal evidence indicate these convictions occur more frequently than many people think. California's place among the five states with the largest number of exonerations in 2013 helps highlight the serious risk of wrongful convictions.

A high exoneration rate

According to Time Magazine, 2013 marked a record year for exonerations in the U.S, with 87 wrongful convictions identified. Almost half were for serious charges, such as murder. In almost one-third of the exonerations, people were convicted of crimes that never actually took place.

California ranked fifth among the ten states with the most DNA exonerations. This high number of exonerations was not an isolated occurrence; since 1989, when the National Registry of Exonerations started tracking DNA exonerations, California has more DNA exonerations than any other state besides New York. Altogether, 136 people who were wrongfully convicted in the state have been exonerated.

The Washington Post notes that the record number of 2013 exonerations does not mean that more wrongful convictions are actually occurring; it simply shows that authorities are becoming more adept at finding past wrongful convictions. Still, the high rate of exonerations draws attention to the fact that wrongful conviction can be a serious risk.

Why wrongful convictions occur

Several factors can be identified as common causes of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project. These include:

  • False confessions on the part of the accused
  • Poor interpretation or use of forensic evidence
  • Eyewitness errors
  • Misconduct by authorities
  • Testimony from informants

The recent exoneration of a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in California illustrated some of these issues. According to The Los Angeles Times, the man served over 36 years in prison, the state's longest incarceration for a wrongful conviction, before he was released due to issues with his conviction. The man's DNA did not match the DNA gathered at the scene, and the eyewitness who testified against him was under the influence of drugs during the alleged crime and during the trial.

The 87 DNA exonerations reported in 2013 also revealed the role that some of these factors play in false convictions. For example, according to Time Magazine, 17 percent of the people exonerated in 2013, or more than one in six, made false confessions or pled guilty to receive less harsh sentencing terms.

Guarding against false convictions

Carefully designed law enforcement policies and procedures can reduce the risk of wrongful convictions. However, some authorities fail to employ measures that can address this serious risk. For instance, The Washington Post notes that some police departments still fail to record identification procedures or conduct blind lineups, in which the administering authority is unaware of the suspect's identity. This is unfortunate, since these measures could be impactful in reducing wrongful convictions.

Anyone accused of criminal activity should recognize the potential for a conviction and the associated life-changing consequences. Speaking with a criminal defense attorney may be a beneficial step for anyone facing serious charges, as an attorney can provide advice on a person's rights and legal options.

Keywords: exoneration, wrongful, incarceration, conviction