By Frederick H. Lowe
African Americans comprise the majority of defendants wrongfully convicted of murder, sexual assault and drug crimes who are later exonerated, according to a study released by the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions.
The report titled “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” reported that African Americans constituted 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations as of October 2016, and a great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in “group” exonerations.
The report examined racial disparities for the major crime categories of murder, sexual assault and drug crimes, three crimes that produce the largest number of exonerations.
African Americans who were convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers, the report stated.
“A major cause of the high number of black murder exonerations is the high homicide rate in the black community—a tragedy that kills many African Americans and sends many others to prison,” the report stated.
Blacks imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. Only about 15% of murders by African Americans involve white victims, but 31% of innocent African-American murder exonerees were convicted of killing white people.
The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police than those with white defendants.
Police assist in convicting black murder defendants through witness tampering, which occurred in 21% of murder exonerations with white defendants but occurred in 39% of trials with black defendants.
“Many of the convictions of African-American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism,” the report stated.
Black exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and black exonerees sentenced to death spent four years longer behind bars.
Black prisoners serving time for sexual assault are three and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white assault convict.
“The major cause of this huge racial disparity appears to be the high danger of mistaken eyewitness identification by white victims in violent crimes with black assailants,” the report stated.
Drug crimes are also those in which the majority of blacks are exonerated.
Although blacks and whites use drugs at an equal rate, African Americans are about five times more likely than whites to go to prison for drug possession. And judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.
That is because police enforce drug laws more vigorously against African Americans than against the white majority. Police stop blacks more frequently, search, arrest and convict them in cases where they are innocent.
“Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in group exonerations that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants,” the report stated. “The great majority were African-American defendants who were framed for drug crimes that never occurred.”
In Harris County, Texas, for example, there have been 133 exonerations in ordinary drug possession cases in the last few years. The defendants pled guilty, but routine lab tests showed those arrested were not carrying drugs. Houston is the largest city in Harris County.
The National Registry of Wrongful Convictions is a project of the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University Law School and Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California Irvine.