Exoneration Round Up – January 27, 2015

  • Congratulations to Joseph Sledge, 70, who was exonerated last week after spending nearly 40 years in a North Carolina prison. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began investigating Mr. Sledge’s case in 2013, not long after court clerks discovered a misplaced envelope containing a key piece of long-dormant evidence – a strand of hair found on the victim, believed to be the attacker’s. DNA testing, which was of course unavailable when Mr. Sledge was wrongfully convicted in 1978, showed that none of the evidence collected on the scene belong to Mr. Sledge. The Commission’s investigative efforts have now led to eight exonerations since 2007. As for Mr. Sledge, he plans on living with family in Savannah, Georgia, and “swim[ming] for a little while,” at long-last enjoying the simple comforts of home.
  • A record-breaking 125 individuals were exonerated in 2014, and over half of those cases involved cooperation from either prosecutors or police departments, according to a National Registry of Exonerations report cited in this USA Today article. The widespread emergence of Conviction Review Units at prosecutorial offices – in the past dozen years, 15 such units have cropped up in the United States – is a large reason for the dramatic increase in exonerations, and a reflection of the growing acceptance by prosecutors that correcting the injustice of a wrongful conviction is essential to regain public trust in the criminal justice system. “People are coming to the understanding that wrongful convictions are not only destroying the lives of people who have been wrongly punished, but they also are undermining the integrity of the criminal justice system,” said Kings County (N.Y.) D.A. Kenneth Thompson in the article. Mr. Thompson, whose county includes Brooklyn, oversaw one of the most active conviction review units in the country last year and exonerated 10 wrongfully convicted murderers in the past year alone.
  • Despite the significant amount of exonerations in 2014, the number of vacated convictions based on DNA evidence has declined. Read more in this Time Magazine article. The National Registry of Exonerations attributes the gradual dip – DNA evidence accounted for over 40 percent of exonerations in 2005, as opposed to 18 percent in 2014 – to the inevitable reduction in old cases with untested or shaky DNA evidence. The decrease could also be due to a singular focus on reviewing questionable convictions obtained by detectives’ misconduct during interrogations. For example, the aforementioned Mr. Thompson, Kings County’s (N.Y.) District Attorney, has focused most of his office’s conviction review inquiry into convictions unlawfully coerced by a single former New York City homicide detective, Louis Scarcella.

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