It is a rule of thumb that if you ask any inmate in any prison, “Are you guilty?” that you will almost always  hear the answer “No”.

But it seems that far more convicts may be telling the truth with that answer than we would care to believe.

Comes a report from the National Registry of Exonerations that the cases of wrongful convictions it documents may be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

More than 2,000 inmates and ex-cons have been exonerated since 1989, according to the database that aims to track all wrongful convictions in the United States. More than 100 had been sentenced to death.

“This is a beginning,” said University of Michigan Law School professor Samuel Gross, one of the database’s creators. “One of my great hopes is that this will lead us to learn more about exonerations.”

This total includes 101 inmates freed from death row.

The findings include:

Perjury and false accusations are the most common causes of a bogus conviction, accounting for 51 percent of the cases included in the database;

Men make up 93 percent of the exonerated defendants;

 African Americans represent 50 percent of the names on the database; whites make up 38 percent. Latinos account for 11 percent, and Native Americans and Asians make up 2 percent;

 The most common crime on the list is murder, representing 48 percent of the exonerations. Sexual assaults are the second most common at 35 percent. There’s a steep drop-off to other crimes, with robberies equaling 5 percent, while drug, white collar and non-violent crimes amount to 7 percent

With over 2 million incarcerated human beings in this country, this total of 2000 wrongfully in prison, especially as it covers a period of over twenty years, seems miniscule.

Too, the percentage of death row exonerations is lower yet, but these men faced officially sanctioned death and the very fact our appeals process in capital cases can be extended for years instead of being truncated, as many advocate, saved these men’s lives.

But remember, these are the cases in which individuals or an organization have demonstrated sufficient interest and faith in innocence to do the time-consuming, dirty work amid frequent setbacks, legal and otherwise, necessary to eventually produce this result.

There has been a long-standing principle in legal circles, expressed in many ways, that it is more desirable that 12 guilty men go free rather than one innocent man be wrongfully imprisoned.

I myself adopted this principle over fifty years ago.

Not every case of late exoneration is due to flaws in the system or egregious conduct on the part of investigators or prosecutors, though many examples of such exist. Many are due to eyewitness misidentification. Numerous studies have shown that this type of testimony is particularly prone to error when the alleged offender is a stranger.

Moreso studies have shown that a person identifying an offender of a different race is prone to being wrong. That is true no matter which racial combination is involved, not strictly a whites prejudiced against a black thing.

A much greater impediment to exoneration, if not leading to the conviction in the first instance, is prosecutorial misconduct to obtain the conviction…fortunately rare enough that the horrible examples really stand out…but also prosecutorial obstinance to accept the idea that the person the state’s attorney worked diligently and honestly to put behind bars might be innocent.

Although it is impractical to believe and act like all such injustices will ultimately be recognized and corrected, assuring that no one will die as a direct result requires only that we abolish the death penalty.

How simple this is to envision. How difficult to achieve this is in practicality.

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