This post is written by Associate Editor Stephanie Williams. Opinions and views expressed herein are those of the writer alone.
The Innocence Network’s Annual Conference theme this year is Race and Wrongful Conviction. The conference will host educational sessions addressing the historic fight for civil rights and the organization’s fight for justice for the innocent. The Innocence Network is a group of independent organizations—including the Kentucky Innocent Project (KIP)—that exonerate and support the innocent. Their mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. As a KIP extern, I will be attending this year’s conference. For those who do not know what KIP externs do, let me briefly explain. KIP “provides incarcerated men and women who have legitimate claims of innocence with a resource through which their claims may be investigated and presented to the courts of the Commonwealth for relief.” That resource is typically a law student at one of Kentucky’s three law schools who works with KIP attorneys and investigators. Each student is assigned a client, an actual convicted person who is serving time for a crime they claim they are innocent of.
Wrongful conviction is a topic that has been garnering national attention recently. Popular documentaries and podcasts have added to the national dialogue surrounding this issue. Despite this awareness, many people continue to think wrongful conviction is an anomaly. That simply is not the case. In 2015, an article was published highlighting the fact that a record number of people were exonerated for crimes they did not commit. That number was 149. Compare that to last year’s number of exonerations and you can see the number is very similar. At least 139 convicted defendants were exonerated in 2017.
In preparation for the upcoming Innocence Conference and in light of its theme, I wanted to learn about the role that race plays in wrongful convictions. I started with DNA. That is the first thing many people think of when considering innocence-related issues. DNA was first used in an exoneration in 1989 and since then the number of wrongful convictions is steadily increasing. As of 2017, the Innocence Project reports that 354 people have been exonerated because of DNA. 70% of those exonerees were racial minorities; 62% of those exonerees were black.
A report published in March 2017 by the National Registry of Exonerations (“Registry”) contained some very sobering statistics for anyone who is interested in social justice. As of the report date, there have been 2,182 exonerations in the United States. The report examined what the first 1,900 cases tell us about race and wrongful conviction. Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but constitute 47% of exonerations listed in the Registry. That is a gross overrepresentation.
The Registry looks at all major crime categories and while noting that racial disparities exist in all categories, focuses on the three types of crimes producing the largest numbers of exonerations: murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes. Black people convicted of murder or sexual assault are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be later found innocent of the crimes.
When it comes to exonerations for murder, half of those exonerated are black. That’s 50% for a group that only make up 13% of the population. Another gross overrepresentation. By comparison, whites make up 64% of the population and 36% of murder exonerations. Compared to the population, blacks are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted for murder than whites.
Someone convicted of sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent if that person is black rather than white. Black sexual assault exonerees are represented at four-and-a-half times their proportion in the population.
Drug crimes show the greatest disparities. Even though there is ample evidence that rates of drug use are comparable across races, black people are at least twelve times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes and overall are almost five times as likely to go to prison for drug possession when compared to whites.
Race plays a huge factor in the criminal justice system, including in wrongful conviction. Racial minorities are disproportionately represented at every stage of the system, from arrest through conviction. I look forward to attending the conference and continuing to learn about issues surrounding race and wrongful conviction and to hear from individuals who have gone through this tragic experience. The conference will take place less than mile from where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago and will conclude with a march for racial justice ending at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination.
 Matt Ferner, A Record Number of People Were Exonerated In 2015 For Crimes They Didn’t Commit, Huff. Post (Feb 3, 2016) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/exonerations-2015_us_56ac0374e4b00b033aaf3da9.
 Niraj Chokshi, False Confessions, Mistaken Witnesses, Corrupt Investigators: Why 139 Innocent People Went to Jail, N.Y. Times (Mar 14, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/14/us/convict-exonerations-2017.html.
 Samuel R. Gross, The staggering number of wrongful convictions in America, Wash. Post (Jul 24, 2015) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-cost-of-convicting-the-innocent/2015/07/24/260fc3a2-1aae-11e5-93b7-5eddc056ad8a_story.html?utm_term=.4aaf0592bcb8.
 DNA Exonerations in the United States, Inn. Proj. (last visited Mar 8 2018) https://www.innocenceproject.org/dna-exonerations-in-the-united-states/.
 National Registry of Exonerations, https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx, (last visited Mar 8, 2018).
 Niraj Chokshi, Black People More Likely to be Wrongfully Convicted of Murder, Study Shows, N.Y. Times (Mar 7, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/us/wrongful-convictions-race-exoneration.html.
 National Registry of Exonerations, https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx.
 See Edwin Grimsley, What Wrongful Convictions Teach Us About Racial Inequality, Inn. Proj. (Sep 26, 2012) https://www.innocenceproject.org/what-wrongful-convictions-teach-us-about-racial-inequality/.