Race in America: Blacks More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted

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A study released on Tuesday indicates that racial bias in the United States makes African Americans much more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes, sexual assault, and murder than defendants who are white.

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) examined cases spanning from 1989 to October 2016, and, out of 1,900 people convicted and later exonerated of crimes, black Americans made up 47 percent, a figure over three times their relative population in the US. 

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African Americans are also seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites, according to the study, and 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than white Americans.

The report noted further discrepancies in murder convictions, stating that "African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers. Part of that disparity is tied to the race of the victim. African Americans 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 have white victims, but 31% of innocent African-American murder exonerees were convicted of killing white people."

Samuel Gross, University of MIchigan Law School professor and senior editor for the group tracking exonerations, said, "In the murder cases we examined, the rate of official misconduct is considerably higher in cases where the defendant is African-American compared to cases where the defendant is white."

Gross noted that unconscious racial bias, overt discrimination, and institutional racism often play a factor in wrongful convictions. 

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NRE released a separate study noting that 2016 was a record year for exonerations in the US, with the most since 1989. There were 166 exonerations, an uptick from 2015’s 160 cases.

Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston, showed chiefly drug convictions and was the source for most of the exonerations in the state. There were many instances of people pleading guilty to drug possession, only for crime reports to reveal months and years later that there were no controlled substances in the seized material.

There were 52 exonerations for murder across the country, along with 73 exonerations of drug possession and other non-violent crimes. Illinois had the most exonerations in 2016 after Texas, with 16. There were 14 exonerations in New York and nine in California.

The "San Antonio Four," four Latino women convicted of child sex crimes in the 1990s were the highest-profile exoneration of last year. In the majority opinion, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge David Newell wrote, "Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime. That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated…These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated." 

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