It was a record year for exonerations. Eighty-seven prisoners falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated in the U.S. in 2013.
Tuesday's "Exonerations in 2013" report revealed that DNA evidence accounted for only 18 exonerations last year, a number that continues to decline. Thirty-three exonerations were initiated or obtained with the help of law enforcement, and 15 exonerations occurred in cases where the defendants originally pleaded guilty.
"About 95 percent of felony convictions are based on guilty pleas, almost always plea bargains," said Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, editor of The National Registry of Exonerations, and co-author of the report. "A likely consequence," he said, "is that quite a few people who are innocent decide to in effect, buy an insurance policy, take a lesser charge, and plea guilty."
Connecticut reported four exonerations in 2013, all defendants from the same incident: a 1996 shooting in New Haven that left one dead, and two injured. Both victims identified the four defendants, Darcus Henry, 21; Johnnie Johnson, 18; Carlos Ashe, 18; Sean Adams, 21, as the gunmen.
They were found guilty after lengthy trials, but holes in the one of the victim's testimony came to light in the appeals process. The second victim lied on the witness stand. "He denied in his testimony that he had any deal with the prosecution," Gross said, "and was getting any benefit for his testimony. It later turned out that was perjury. In fact, he had various drug and weapon charges pending, for which he could have gotten up to 35 years in prison. Instead, most of the charges were dropped, and he only got four years.The defense and the court were never told about this."
Gross said that exonerations are on the rise in part because law enforcement and prosecutors are more diligent about investigating possible false convictions.