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Locked Up

March 13, 2013
by Madeleine Key

Last fall, shortly before citizens voted down Proposition 34, the ballot measure that would have repealed the death penalty, preliminary findings from a new Berkeley research group revealed that more than 200 individuals have been wrongfully convicted in California since 1989—including three inmates on death row.

The group, called the California Wrongful Convictions Project, is a joint undertaking of Berkeley’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, with the criminal justice research firm Hollway Advisory Services. It is the first group to attempt to quantify the financial impact of the state’s wrongful convictions and to systematically identify each wrongful conviction and assess why it occurred.

The project defines a wrongful conviction as an instance in which the court or the prosecutor dismissed all counts after conviction, as well as those in which the conviction was reversed and the individual was completely acquitted on retrial. The total number of wrongful convictions in California is unknown because the criminal justice system doesn’t systematically collect and store information about exonerated cases.

To the surprise of project director John Hollway, the group quickly uncovered 214 wrongful convictions in just three months of searching through hundreds of court records, data from state agencies, legal databases, and newspapers. Thorough investigation and outreach in the first half of 2013 is expected to increase the total substantially. “We’ve just begun to scratch the surface,” said Hollway.

Even more troubling is the discovery that wrongful convictions occur frequently in even the most serious cases. Forty percent of the 214 individuals in the project’s dataset to date received initial sentences of 20 years or more in prison; many of these had been sentenced to life, life without parole, and even death. The majority of those exonerated, 42 percent, had been originally convicted of manslaughter or murder.

The project found that human error—both deliberate and inadvertent—presents a more serious danger to the criminal justice system than many may imagine. Perjury or false accusations, official misconduct, and mistaken witness identification were the three greatest contributors to wrongful convictions.

The plight of the wrongfully convicted has not gone unnoticed. Projects across the country, most often associated with university law schools, have attempted to right wrongs by taking on specific inmates’ cases since DNA testing became available in the late ’80s. The California Wrongful Convictions Project differs in its scope and its explicit goal to create a rigorous, data-driven analysis of why wrongful convictions occur—with the intent to inspire evidence-based dialogue about reform.

“We can all agree that there are errors in our criminal justice system,” Hollway says. The question now, he adds, is, “Who are the people that are not being served?”

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