GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The latest data from the National Registry of Exonerations report 11 people were exonerated last year in Michigan, tied for third most in the United States.
The report, released earlier this month, says the organization confirmed 161 total exonerations in 2021. On average, those prisoners spent 11.5 years behind bars and lost 1,849 years to failures within the legal system.
Barbara O’Brien, a law professor at Michigan State University and the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, says in addition to the 161, the registry also confirmed 65 other cases that were exonerated in years past and only now have come to light.
“We’re always learning about exonerations that we didn’t know about,” O’Brien told News 8. “Sometimes lots of exonerations are really high profile and they get a lot of press. Those are easy for us to find out about. If a (conviction integrity unit) is involved, they usually let us know. But there are some that are kind of under the radar.”
Of the 161 exonerations, 110 of the cases involved a violent crime. Homicide charges were the most common, including 75 murder cases and two manslaughter cases. Another nine cases involved sexual assault and 24 cases involved some form of assault, robbery or attempted murder.
The remaining 51 exonerations were for nonviolent offenses, including 21 for drug crimes and 15 for weapons charges.
Of the confirmed 2021 exonerations, official misconduct played a role in 102 of them — nearly 70%. Official misconduct covers law enforcement officials, prosecutors and forensic analysts. O’Brien said the most common mistake is officials withholding exculpatory evidence — evidence that could help the defendant plead their innocence.
“It doesn’t have to be dispositive of innocence, but if it tends to make it more likely that the defendant is (innocent), the state has an obligation to turn that over,” O’Brien said. “It’s ultimately the prosecutor’s responsibility but there are definitely cases where the police don’t tell the prosecutor. So it’s on the police to turn it over to the prosecutor. It’s the prosecutor’s job to turn it over to the defense.”
PATTERN OF RACIAL BIAS
African Americans make up just 13% of the U.S. population, but according to the NRE, of the 3,060 exonerations since 1989, 51% of them are for African Americans. In 2021, 109 of 161 exonerations were for Black men or women. In Michigan, it was seven out of 11 cases.
Robyn Frankel, Michigan’s assistant attorney general and the director of the statewide Conviction Integrity Unit, says systemic racial bias can’t be ignored.
“Systemic racial bias has been there forever,” Frankel told News 8. “We can debate critical race theory and racial bias and systemic racism, but my position would be that that’s where it all comes from.”
While it isn’t measured directly by the NRE, Frankel suspects socioeconomic status also plays a key role in the number of arrests and mishandled cases.
“The vast majority of folks that you will see coming through (conviction integrity units) are from (marginalized) neighborhoods,” Frankel said. “I think that even the white folks are not normally the wealthy white folks. The folks who we traditionally see are folks more socioeconomically depressed.”
The NRE is working on a separate study to break down the elements that tie race and wrongful convictions. That study is expected to be released later this year.
ONE BAD APPLE
Illinois had the most exonerations of any state in 2021, almost single-handedly thanks to one crooked police officer.
Over the course of a decade, Chicago Police Department Sgt. Ronald Watts and his squad regularly terrorized a housing complex, essentially collecting a tax from drug dealers in exchange for turning a blind eye while manufacturing criminal charges against people who wouldn’t cooperate.
Dozens and dozens of people, arrested on random drug charges, were brought in by Watts and his team. Most of them took plea deals to avoid longer prison sentences. Investigators quickly realized that most of the defendants were pleading guilty because they knew the system was fixed against them and they had no real chance at proving their innocence.
Watts and one other officer were arrested in 2012 and eventually charged with stealing government funds after getting caught in an FBI sting. Watts eventually pleaded guilty. At his sentencing, the judge dressed him down, calling his actions “unconscionable” and a “betrayal” to his community. Though the federal law allowed for a maximum punishment of up to 10 years in prison, Watts was sentenced only to 22 months and a year of probation.
Now, nearly a decade after his arrest, Watts’ crimes are still making an impact. In 2021, 15 people with charges connected to Watts were exonerated. Already in 2022, 34 more prisoners have been exonerated. At least 150 cases have been exonerated in all and more than 200 pending cases have been thrown out.
Several members of Watts’ squad remain with the Chicago Police Department and have yet to be disciplined, despite investigators’ insistence that all of them participated in the crimes. According to a report by NBC Chicago, 10 officers from Watt’s team were put on a list by the Cook County State Attorney’s Office, saying they would never be asked to testify in a case because of the questions surrounding their credibility.
THE KEY TO MOVING FORWARD
Both O’Brien and Frankel credit the rise of conviction integrity units in finding and fighting for more exonerations.
“(Conviction integrity units) are important for a lot of reasons but one of them is that we all agree that people who are innocent shouldn’t be locked up,” Frankel said. “And sometimes the information that actually proves innocence just isn’t available. It’s not there for decades and by the time that information rises to the top, somebody’s legal avenues have all been exhausted. You only get so much in the way of an appeal in the criminal justice system.”
Michigan has five active units. Wayne and Washtenaw counties were the first to launch. The statewide agency that Frankel leads was announced in 2019 and formally started taking cases in January 2020. Since the start of 2022, Oakland and Macomb counties have launched their own CIUs.
O’Brien said conviction integrity units are a rare element that crosses political boundaries.
“People might disagree about how extensive the problem is but nobody can deny that it happens and no one can deny that it’s a bad thing,” O’Brien said. “Conviction integrity units are very popular among voters.”
Of Michigan’s 11 exonerations in 2021, a CIU played a role in seven of them, including five in Wayne County and one each in Oakland and Berrien counties.
Neither O’Brien nor Frankel could confirm whether any other counties are working on launching more CIUs. O’Brien expects only a handful of counties would even consider one.
“(CIUs) kind of only makes sense in a very big jurisdiction, a very populated jurisdiction where you have big offices where you can actually dedicate staff solely to conviction review and they have independence from the line prosecutors who are prosecuting the crimes,” O’Brien said. “If you’re in a small office, you have maybe five, six, 10 attorneys working. You can’t really dedicate somebody full time to conviction review.”
Frankel agrees, saying resources are hard to come by and independence is key to the entire process.
“The difficulty with local units is resources. I mean, even in our (statewide) office, we have resource issues,” Frankel said. “The best practice for a conviction integrity unit is that it is completely separate from the rest of the prosecutor’s office. You don’t want to involve prosecutors who were previously involved in prosecuting the cases and you want all of your information kept confidential. The only way to get a fair review is to get a new review. You want new eyes. You can’t expect people who were involved in the original prosecution to be able to go into it objectively.”