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  • Writer's pictureKailey Lei

The Statistics of Wrongful Convictions: An Overview

Updated: Jun 16

Through the current legal system, wrongful convictions are often treated with a blind eye: an inevitable mistake needed for the overall good. Who cares if a miniscule amount of people are wrongfully imprisoned as long as the overwhelming majority are still justly prisoned, right? A pebble thrown against the ocean is an insignificant force and will be washed away by the vast waves anyways. This pebble -- a tiny setback-- won't interfere with the workings of the ocean, right? Except it does. If this pebble is part of the foundation of a larger land mass, the disturbance and slide of this singular pebble can loosen the supporting land mass, and if this escalates into a landslide falling into the ocean, this can result in a natural disaster: a tsunami. Likewise, the ignorance of injustice can escalate mere statistics into social disasters: crime capitals, racism and corruption at the official level.

Crime Capitals

For decades dating back to even before the Innocence Project was founded, specific American counties were constantly on the list of national crime capitals. These counties are infamous for their extreme murder, drug, gun and overall crime rate, and some of these are the same ones that make the National Registry of Exonerations' list of highest exoneration counties. Wrongful convictions are an injustice, a grave mistake that holds its blood in human lives, yet how many mistakes will occur in the same place before it is no longer deemed a mere "mistake"? These are the National Registry of Exonerations' top 3 crime exoneration capitals:

  1. Cook County, Illinois With its 5th year in a row as the US' wrongful conviction capital, Cook County is not a stranger when it comes to police misconduct. In 2022, its 124 overturned convictions accounted for more than half of the national exonerations that year! And out of those, 99% wrongfully convicted were African American or Latino. Mayor Brandon Johnson has pledged to reform the Chicago PD and reduce crime and violence until at least 2027, so we can only hope that this crime capital will lose its infamous name.

  2. Harris County, Texas Another exoneration capital, in 2017, Harris County shed its name as a death penalty capital to an exoneration capital instead. A 2017 study also showed that most of those who were wrongfully convicted for drugs were African American, with most exonerated also of African American or Latino descent. Attorney Kim Rog stated that they are not ashamed of their high exoneration numbers and will instead treat it as an issue to reform.

  3. Kings County, New York Finally, our third exoneration crime capital contestant is none other than the home of the 2022 NYPD corruption scandal, where Brooklyn District Attorney, Eric Gonzalez, exonerated 378 wrongful convictions made by 13 of NYPD's officials. Again, the racial aspect ties into this crime capital, as a 2020 DA study titles "426 years: An Examination of 25 Wrongful Convictions", 24 of the 25 wrongfully convicted were found to be Black! As of 2023, the current New York Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act is being decided.

*Information for these counties can be found on our IG Post Racism

A clear pattern treaded through all three of the crime exoneration capitals covered above: certain races are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than others. But why? When correlation of racial targeting and injustice start to become solid patterns, this indicates a more serious issue at hand: racial profiling.

Blacks make up only 13.6 % of US population yet 53% of wrongful convictions, as well as are 7x more likely to be falsely convicted than Whites. Such racial disparities in exonerations are most prominent in murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.

  1. Murder For murder crimes, innocent Blacks are 7.5x more likely to be falsely convicted than Whites, as well as 50% more likely to be caused by police misconduct. Many of these false murder convictions are influenced by racial, unconscious, and institutional bias, causing Black exonerees to also have to spend 3 more years in prison than Whites. However, keep in mind that most innocent convictees will never be exonerated.

  2. Sexual Assault For SA crimes, innocent Blacks are 7.5x more likely to be falsely convicted than Whites, where a major cause for these racial disparities is the high danger of misidentification by white victims. Many false SA convictions are also influenced by implicit bias, racial official misconduct, and explicit racism, leading Black exonerees to have to spend 4 more years in prison than Whites. However, SA misidentification exonerations has been less common after introduction of DNA technology

  3. Drugs For drug crimes, innocent Blacks are 19x more likely to be falsely convicted than Whites because drug crimes are often not reported, so police usually end up choosing to arrest suspects, leading to racial profiling. Especially in the drug community, law enforcement disproportionately pursue Blacks, leading to a statistic of where 87% of 259 exonerees who had drugs planted on them by officer were Black.

*Information can be found on our IG Post.

Official Corruption

Again we can spot a common factor both in the overview of the crime capitals and the racial profiling overview where corruption, especially that carried out by officials, holds the power to influence and decide an innocent person's fate.

\ In the National Registry of Exonerations' 2022 Annual Report (link to our IG post here), official misconduct was the leading contributing factor, where 195 out of 233 total exonerations were affected. That's a rate of 84%! This pattern again holds strong in the 2023 Annual Report (link to our IG post here), as out of 153 total exonerations, 77% also had official misconduct as a leading cause. However, keep in mind that there can be different cases of governmental and official misconduct corruption. While the previous sections covered the racial and biased aspects of corruption, this section will explore the gravity of misinterpretation by governmental officials to provide a more comprehensive view of what counts as governmental misconduct.

Microscopic Hair Comparison Analysis (MHCA)

MHCA was an FBI backed reliable testimony where they forensically examined hair samples and would officially testify on the reliability of them during trial. However, in 2015, 268 cases of MHCA were found to contain 96% false testimony.

This posed a grave issue, as the FBI had trained thousands of MHCA experts in the past decades. With tangible consequences, many falsely convicted prisoners were affected by exaggerated testimony, sending some as far as death row. FBI MHCA experts had emphasized misleading statements to make evidence appear stronger, where statements like "consistent with" and "similar" were often misinterpreted to indicate connection, instead of correlation. In fact, 7/10 times the hair actually came from the same source, making for misleading comparisons. 125 of those who were exonerated lost 1,918 years in prison, averaging 15.3 wasted years each. Furthermore, taxpayers shelled out 350 million dollars in compensation even though 1/3 of those exonerated were never even paid.

*Information can be found on our IG Post.

Why should the American people have to shelter the burden of mistakes that could've been avoided in the first place? Not only are wrongful convictions mistakes that can be avoided, they are the very pebbles that will lead to disaster the longer we continue to ignore them. Why wait for the pebbles to cause a tsunami when we can start building a stronger foundation now? The legal system needs reformation urgently and you CAN save us.


Al Jazeera

Brooklyn DA Office

John T Floyd Law Firm

National Registry of Exonerations

Spectrum News 1

Texas Tribune

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