With 726 inmates sentenced to die, California has the largest death row in America. The state has executed just thirteen death row inmates since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, and none since 2006. The path from conviction to lethal injection for those who were executed has taken as long as twenty-five years.
In May, the National Registry released a report describing the first 873 exonerations it identified – including seventy-nine state exonerations and one federal exoneration in California. The Report emphasized that the 873 were only a beginning—that the true number of exonerations still is unknown because there is no formal system for recording such cases as they occur.
Since then, the number of exonerations on the National Registry has grown to 996 and will soon top 1,000, according to Samuel Gross, Law Professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the Registry.
After several years of painstaking work, the National Registry of Exonerations is a reality.
A joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Registry is the largest collection of exonerations in the United States with nearly 900 individual cases since 1989, the year of the first DNA exoneration in America.
The Registry issued a report analyzing these cases as well as the exonerations of more than 1,100 defendants following convictions stemming from 13 separate police corruption scandals (such as the drug task force scandal in Tulia, Texas, and the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles).
In December 2011, I began to work on the Registry, researching and writing cases.
The total number of defendants exonerated during the 23-year period totals roughly 2,000 — an average of about one a week.
The cases in the Registry offer important insights into the false conviction phenomenon — insights that hopefully will foster criminal justice reforms designed to improve the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system.
Perjury, faulty eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct are the leading reasons for wrongful convictions, according to the first national registry of exonerations compiled by university researchers.
The database, assembled in a collaboration by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, has identified 873 faulty convictions in the past 23 years that have been recognized by prosecutors, judges or governors.
The registry’s founders say the numbers, which do not include many cases in which innocent suspects plead guilty to avoid the risk of more serious punishments or cases that have been dismissed because of legal error without new evidence of innocence, represent only a fraction of the problem in the nation’s criminal justice system.
“What this shows is that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, and they are more common than people think,” said University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, the registry’s editor. “It is not the rule, but we won’t learn to get better unless we pay attention to these cases.”
Despite the data, the registry concluded that the “overwhelming majority of convicted defendants are guilty.”
“Most never dispute their guilt and few ever present substantial post-conviction evidence of innocence,” the registry found. “When that does happen, however, it should be taken seriously. …We cannot prevent all false convictions, but we must not compound these tragedies by stubbornness or arrogance or, worst of all, indifference.”
Andrew Cohen, legal analyst for CBS Radio News and 60 Minutes and contributing editor at The Atlantic, writes a compelling article dissecting the book-length investigation of the arrest, conviction and execution of Carlos DeLuna for a murder in 1983.
Titled “Yes, American, We Have Executed an Innocent Man,” Cohen notes that Steve Mills and I conducted our own investigation of the DeLuna case and wrote a three-part series published in 2006.
In particular, Cohen delivers a scathing criticism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who ridiculed the proposition that an innocent defendant had been executed in America in an opinion on June 26, 2006, saying in part:
“If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”
The following day, the final installment of our series on the wrongful conviction of DeLuna was published in the Chicago Tribune.
Read Cohen’s Atlantic piece in its entirety HERE.
In 2005, James Liebman, a professor at Columbia Law School in New York, approached me and fellow Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Mills and asked if we would be interested in investigating a possible wrongful execution in Texas – -the case of Carlos DeLuna. Several months earlier, Steve and I had investigated and written an article that exposed how Cameron Todd Willingham had been executed in Texas for an arson fire that killed his three children.
Our investigation provided compelling evidence that the fire was not an arson and that Willingham was innocent. Liebman explained that his students and a private investigator had done preliminary work on the DeLuna case and had turned up some evidence that DeLuna was innocent. Liebman offered to turn over the results of their work and the documents they had collected. There were no strings.
Liebman put it simply: Take the case wherever you feel it needs to go. Pull no punches. Give it your best shot.
The result was a three part series, published in 2006, which not only provided strong evidence that DeLuna was innocent, but also identified the true killer.
Six years later, Liebman and company have published Los Tocayos Carlos – a book-length account of the DeLuna case, published in the Columbia Human Rights Review – complete with a robust, dynamic website crammed with video interviews, photographs, transcripts, and exhibits documenting the wrongful execution.
The following OpEd, co-written by MoPo and Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi of the Northern California Innocence Project ran in the March 3, 2011 edition of the San Jose Mercury News. You can read it on the Mercury News site (with accompanying comments) by clicking this link: READ.
Opinion: Defendants exonerated, but off-base prosecutors pay no price
By Maurice Possley and Kathleen Ridolfi
Special to the Mercury News
In a remarkable ruling, a California federal appeals court has set aside the conviction, prison sentence and $200,000 fine assessed against Prabhat Goyal, the former chief financial officer of a Silicon Valley software firm who had been found guilty by a jury of charges he misstated revenue and lied to auditors.
The court didn’t just reverse the case for a new trial, it threw it out completely. The author of the ruling, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Clifton, wrote in the December decision, “Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, no reasonable juror could have found Goyal guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of any of the charges against him.”
In other words, there was no evidence of a crime.
The case, another in a string of imploded federal prosecutions, makes Goyal the latest victim of overzealous prosecutors.
His prosecution so angered another member of the three-judge panel, Judge Alex Kozinski, that he wrote a blistering concurring opinion that should be required reading for every prosecutor in America.
“This is just one of a string of recent cases in which courts have found that federal prosecutors overreached by trying to stretch criminal law beyond its proper bounds,” Kozinski said, pointing to cases brought against former accounting giant Arthur Anderson and the prosecution of former Brocade executive Gregory Reyes, among others.
In the recent spate of white-collar cases in which courts declared misconduct was committed, not one prosecutor has yet been held to answer for it. The only cost has been to remove the case from the victory column — a consequence that too many prosecutors find well worth the risk.Goyal was the former chief financial officer of Network Associates, a Santa Clara-based software manufacturing firm that later became known as McAfee. In 2004, he was accused of securities fraud and making false statements. Convicted in 2007, Goyal was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined $200,000.
“(C)riminal law should clearly separate conduct that is criminal from conduct that is legal,” Kozinski wrote. “That is not only because of the dire consequences of a conviction — including disenfranchisement, incarceration and even deportation — but also because criminal law represents the community’s sense of the type of behavior that merits the moral condemnation of society.
“When prosecutors have to stretch law or the evidence to secure a conviction, as they did here, it can hardly be said that such moral judgment is warranted,” Kozinski wrote.
In October 2010, the Northern California Innocence Project published, “Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009,” which identified more than 700 cases where courts had found misconduct. Of those, only seven prosecutors were disciplined.
Prosecutorial misconduct fundamentally perverts justice and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. It undermines our trust in the justice system and subverts the notion that we are a fair society.
Yet, until recently, in the vast majority of cases, courts and agencies charged with overseeing attorney conduct have failed to acknowledge it, let alone do anything to deter it.
More than six years after he was charged, Goyal has been exonerated, but at a steep cost to him, to the public, and to the criminal justice system.
“That is not the way criminal law is supposed to work,” the judge said.
KATHLEEN RIDOLFI is executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. MAURICE POSSLEY, a Pulitzer Prize winning former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is an investigator and researcher with the project. They wrote this article for this newspaper.