Like many journalists, we at the editorial board get letters every so often from inmates proclaiming their innocence. After a quick read, they usually go in the old circular file.
I’ve covered my share of murder trials, and except for one where a young woman who burned her baby alive should have been ruled insane and another where there was no body, I was always convinced that the judge and jury had gotten it right.
Yet the hard truth is that some innocent people do go to prison.
A record 87 people were exonerated last year in the United States. That’s the headline of a new report on wrongful convictions.
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But to me the most interesting and important trend is that police and prosecutors are taking a more active role in freeing those who shouldn’t be behind bars. That is a very positive development, one that can only enhance the public trust without which law enforcement can’t do its job.
The National Registry of Exonerations said this week that 33 of last year’s cases happened either at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement. Over the last two years, police or prosecutors cooperated in 43 percent of exonerations, compared with 27 percent over the previous 23 years.
The registry report says that law enforcement officials appear to be more concerned about false convictions, more willing to reinvestigate cases and more responsive to claims of innocence from prisoners. Police chiefs, prosecutors, federal justice officials and experts joined together for a 2012 summit on wrongful convictions and how to avoid them. Some district attorneys around the country, including Santa Clara County, have recently created formal “conviction integrity” units.
“Exonerations are on the rise, and a lot of the credit goes to prosecutors and police who are increasingly active in investigating possible false convictions,” Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and editor of the registry, said in a statement. “But there are many false convictions that we don’t know about.”
Authorities do have to answer for past errors. Of the 1,300 known exonerations over the past 25 years, official misconduct was a contributing factor in 46 percent of cases, the third-most-common cause behind false accusation and mistaken witness identification.
Law enforcement officials are also under more public pressure and scrutiny with growing awareness of this problem. There is widespread media coverage of some cases, including Brian Banks, a Long Beach high school football star who spent five years in prison for rape. His conviction was reversed in May 2012 after his accuser changed her story and the California Innocent Project took up his cause.
In all, California recorded seven exonerations in 2012 and another six last year. Over the last 25 years, the state has had 136, ranking second behind only New York.
It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect our criminal justice system to be perfect, but we should try to get as close as humanly possible.
Part of that is admitting mistakes. It may be embarrassing, even painful, to reopen old cases. Trying to bury the truth is worse.