No Surprise: US Black People Falsely Convicted More Than Whites

Posted March 08, 2017

- Blacks who are innocent are seven times more likely to be unjustly convicted of murder than innocent white people. But because efforts to exonerate innocent people are focused on convictions where the stakes are higher, such as rape or murder, many innocent defendants convicted of low-level drug crimes are never exonerated.

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and spend longer in prison before exoneration, according to a report released today that's co-edited by a Michigan State University College of Law professor.

When it comes to drug crimes, innocent Black people in the US are about 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people, the study said.

The report examines exonerations for defendants who had been wrongly convicted of murder, sexual assault and drug crimes since 1989. Gross said this was partly because homicide rates among blacks are higher than among whites, and innocent blacks are therefore more likely to get suspected and convicted of murder.

African-American sexual assault exonerees received much longer prison sentences than white sexual assault exonerees, and they spent on average nearly four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration. The researchers found that African-Americans are roughly five times as likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites.

Institutional discrimination, unconscious bias and explicit racism against African Americans were factors in some of the wrongful convictions, according to the study released on Tuesday from the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, The Texas Tribune reported that the state had paid 101 people who were wrongly convicted almost $100 million over the previous 25 years.

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Researchers also learned that victims of sexual assault were more likely to misidentify their assailants in cases where the defendant was black. According to the study, imprisoned African Americans are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims. That racial dynamic was in play in half of all sexual assault cases that led to wrongful convictions but occurred in only 11 percent of all sexual assault cases in the U.S.

What we can't know is how many innocent people have been put to death in the name of justice. "They constitute 47% of the 1,900 [total] exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016)". Blacks are more frequently "stopped, searched, arrested and convicted ― including in cases in which they are innocent", researchers write.

The study found misconduct in 76 percent of cases that resulted in black murder defendants going to prison for crimes they did not commit, compared to just 65 percent of the cases in which white defendants were wrongfully convicted. Hispanic men were 1.7 times more likely than whites to be killed by officers. In numerous cases, suspects pleaded guilty to drug possession and months or years later, reports from crime labs showed that seized material contained no controlled substances.

"Why do police officers who conduct these outrageous programs of framing innocent drug defendants concentrate on African Americans?" The most recent of these group exonerations was just past year. So far they've identified 43 defendants affected.

In its annual exoneration report, the registry said it was aware of 166 exonerations in 25 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico in 2016.

"Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem", O'Brien noted in the press release. Read the special report on the relationship between race and wrongful convictions here.