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Your Black client is much more likely to be wrongfully convicted

Wednesday, April 5, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

Those of us who’ve been around for a while have heard this repeatedly. But, lest you think times are changing, here’s some sobering data from a March, 2017 report co-edited by a Michigan State University College of Law Professor.

From the beginning, this is a disturbing report. Here’s how it starts:

African-Americans are only 13% of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in “group exonerations”.

The report focuses on murder, sexual assault and drug crimes. To stay brief, we will give you highlights only of the murder statistics for Black defendants. Once you see those, we think you will want to review the whole of this very recent document.

Here are the statistics on Black defendants accused of murder.

Judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.

African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.

The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.

In addition, on average black murder exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and those sentenced to death spent four years longer.

Many of the convictions of African-American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism.

If you represent Black defendants, these are realities you know. The report is not that long and you can read it and see the consistency of how having black skin gives you less of a shot at justice. One day, we’d like to see the report telling us that courtrooms are color blind, but we are nowhere near that goal.

Samuel R. Gross, Maurice Possley, & Klara Stephens (2017). Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States. UC Irvine: National Registry of Exonerations. 

Available here.

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