The number of people who have been exonerated from their criminal convictions in the US hit a record high in 2015, due largely to district attorneys in places such as Houston, Dallas, and Brooklyn, New York, setting up units to review cases where the legal system may have acted unjustly, a report has found.
There were 149 known exonerations in 2015, where the person served on average more than 14 years in prison, according to the report from the National Registry of Exonerations.
That topped the previous recorded high of 139 in 2014.
The issue has gained attention because of the hit Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, which suggests authorities planted evidence against two Wisconsin men convicted of murder, an allegation rejected by local law enforcement.
The show has led tens of thousands to sign petitions calling for the release of Steven Avery.
“There is a coming to terms that this is a regular problem, not just something that happens once in a while and unpredictably,” said Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the registry.
“But progress so far is a drop in the bucket.”
Among those exonerated, 58 had been convicted of homicide, including five people who had been sentenced to death, it said.
About three quarters of the homicide exonerations included official misconduct, it said.
Another large group involved drug possession.
Many times people held in custody falsely confessed to a crime to avoid a trial where they faced much longer sentences, the report said.
Texas was the top state for exonerations, propelled by conviction integrity units set up in its most populous counties.
The state, known for its tough approach on crime, has also been a national leader in prosecutorial reform.
“For the integrity of the system, it is the right thing to do,” said Inger Chandler, head of the Harris County District Attorney’s Conviction Review Section, where there were 42 exonerations in 2015.
Over the past few years, the county, which includes the city of Houston, has been reviewing cases where there were convictions for felony drug possession but where lab testing, often coming after a guilty plea, showed there were no drugs.
Texas had 54 known exonerations in 2015, followed by 17 in New York and 13 in Illinois, the report said. 24 US district attorney offices now have offices dedicated to reviewing convictions.
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