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Law enforcement leads the way in overturning bad convictions, group says

Reza A. Marvashti / The Free Lance-Star via AP

Michael Wayne Hash is escorted to a police car in Culpeper, Va. on March 14, 2012. A Culpeper County Circuit Judge ordered Hash's release after his life sentence for killing an elderly woman was tossed out by a federal judge. That judge overturned Hash's 2001 murder conviction, citing prosecutorial and police misconduct and an inadequate defense.

The number of cases in which prosecutors or police helped exonerate people convicted of crimes surged in 2012, passing 50 percent for the first time, a research group said Wednesday.

Authorities led or cooperated on investigations into 34 of last year’s 63 known exonerations, the group said.

“To the extent that they are focused … on correcting errors that have been made, that’s really good news,” said Professor Sam Gross, editor of The National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. “That means that more innocent people will be released and that we’ll, over time, learn more about the process that produces mistakes like this and avoid more tragic errors.”

The development may reflect the spread of what are often known as Conviction Integrity Units in district attorney’s offices in major cities across the country as well as changes in state laws making it easier to do post-conviction DNA testing, according to the registry, which launched last year and provides information about exonerations since 1989.

Gross said it was an important change, noting that police and prosecutors are the “central actors” in the criminal justice system and had the key role of investigating crimes and pursuing justice. “They have more information; they have more power than anybody else,” said Gross.

But Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, took exception to the report’s findings, particularly that it was the first time law enforcement helped in a majority of such cases.

“It’s offensive because that’s our job all the time is to … hold the guilty accountable, but our job is (also) to make sure that the innocent are acquitted or exonerated,” he said. “We do that in every case.”

He also objected to some of the exonerations, saying that in decades-old crimes being challenged today, there were bars to prosecutors re-trying these cases, such as dead witnesses or lost evidence.

“A number of these people are not innocent,” he said. “I can’t stress this enough because you have victims out there. … If you live through that kind of stuff it’s maddening.”

He also noted that the 1,089 exonerations found by the registry from 1989 to 2012 was a small number compared to the more than 10 million felony cases that prosecutors nationwide handle annually.

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The registry uses its own criteria to determine when someone has been exonerated, since there is no such legal category. People have been exonerated through a governor’s pardon, court dismissal of the case, acquittal on retrial and a few through court-issued “certificates of innocence” or “declarations of wrongful imprisonment.” This includes cases where DNA testing was a factor. Some people have been exonerated posthumously.

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The 2012 exonerations included those charged with murder, including: Damon Thibodeaux, who was cleared by DNA testing in the rape and killing of his 14-year-old step cousin and was released from death row; Michael Hash, who was was freed after 12 years following his life sentence conviction in the killing of an elderly woman. A federal judge vacated the conviction, citing misconduct by the prosecutor and police, and an inadequate defense.

The conviction integrity units, have emerged in recent years in Dallas, Houston, New York (Manhattan and Brooklyn), Santa Clara, Calif., and Lake and Cook counties in Illinois to review disputed cases. Some state attorneys general, such as in Virginia and Colorado, have also undertaken programs to facilitate exonerations or help particular defendants.

A snapshot of the 1,050 individual exonerations from January 1989-December 2012:

--  93.2 percent were men; 6.7 percent were women.

--  The race of the defendants was known in 97.6 percent of the cases: 47.3 percent were black, 38.5 percent were white, 12.2 percent were Hispanic and 1.8 percent were Native American or Asian.

--  9.4 percent pled guilty. The rest were convicted at trial: 82.2 percent by juries and 7 percent by judges. In about 1 percent of the cases, the Registry could not determine whether the trial conviction was by a jury or judge.

--  32.4 percent were cleared at least in part through DNA evidence

--  67.5 percent were cleared without DNA evidence.

--  Nearly all had been in prison for years: half for at least 9 years; more than 75 percent for at least 4 years.

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