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Last year more than 151 people were exonerated after spending an average of 15 years in prison, despite being innocent. Some were sentenced to death and pardoned before the ultimate punishment.
This reveals something about the criminal justice system. That is why, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School, increasingly even prosecuting offices are focusing on innocence to regain public trust. What does that mean for all of us or you individually if you've been falsely convicted?
Innocence Is Important
When an innocent person is imprisoned or killed for a crime they did not commit, it is a stain on society as a whole, not just the prosecutors who pursued the conviction. And increasingly prosecuting offices around the country are working as defenders and exonerations are reportedly on the rise.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who runs the school's exoneration registry, told NBC News that the record 2015 exoneration numbers show recognition by prosecuting offices that convicting the innocent is seen as bad for the justice system as a whole. He says that 24 offices around the country are now actively focusing on innocence, undoing their own past work.
For example, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson is focusing on a Conviction Integrity Unit in his office in New York. Imprisoning the innocent, he says, undermines "the public's confidence and trust in our criminal justice system."
Although no one knows, according to Professor Gross, just how many people are falsely convicted annually or how exactly it happens, experts do have a sense. There is pressure on police to make arrests and prosecutors to show results and get wins; they then apply the pressure on defendants, forcing false confessions or ignoring evidence of innocence. It happens in plea bargaining efforts and in trial cases.
"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," wrote British jurist Sir William Blackstone in the 1760s. This is known as Blackstone's Ratio and stands for the principle that authorities must err on the side of innocence.
A zealous prosecutor seeks truth, not a conviction in the name of a win. So what does that mean to you if you are innocent but have pled guilty to a crime you did not commit or been convicted after trial? Can you rely on the good will of the overworked prosecutors who got you in this predicament? No.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you are now accused of a crime or were convicted despite your innocence, talk to a lawyer about defense or post-conviction relief. Many criminal defense attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to discuss your case.