African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated.
Once considered unusual, exonerations are now fairly commonplace, with a record number of exonerees in 2016 - more than three a week - according to a report released today. "There are nearly certainly many more such cases that remain hidden".
Among last year's most notable exonerations were the so-called San Antonio Four - four women convicted of sexual assault in the 1990s and sent to prison because of junk science, tainted testimony and false ideas of lesbian behavior, a Texas appeals court said.
Blacks serving time for sexual assault are three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than whites that have been convicted of sexual assault.
"African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims", the study noted. And while black defendants accounted for 40 percent of those found guilty of murder, they made up 50 percent of people wrongfully convicted for the crime.
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Gross said the rate of illegal drug use is roughly the same for whites and blacks, but the number of arrests and convictions is much higher for African-Americans than for whites.
In addition, the report, officially titled, "Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States", found innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people. "Only about 15% of murders by African Americans have white victims, but 31% of innocent African-American murder exonerees were convicted of killing white people".
Researchers focused on three types of crimes where blacks were more likely than whites to be exonerated: murder, sexual assault and drug crimes.
Over a two-decade period, the study examined the conviction and exonerations of over 1,900 defendants with almost half of the group identified as Black. "Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful".
"It appears that innocent black sexual assault defendants receive harsher sentences than whites if they are convicted, and then face greater resistance to exoneration even in cases in which they are ultimately released", the report reads. But those who are wrongly convicted did not contribute to the murder rate, and instead are "deeply harmed by murders of others", the report says. "One possibility is that they're more conscientious".
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In murder cases, innocent blacks are about seven times more likely than innocent white people to be convicted.
The primary reason for the drug crime disparity is that police enforce drug laws more vigorously against the black community, according to the report.
"Harris County is extremely valuable for our research because it's an unusual example of something you wouldn't otherwise see", said Samuel Gross, a University of MI law professor and senior editor of the study.
One of those exonerated, Devontae Sanford, was 14 years old when four people were killed in a house in his Detroit neighborhood.
"There's no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly-that's beyond dispute", said Barbara O'Brien, a Michigan State University law professor and editor for the registry, in a press release. "They constitute 47% of the 1,900 [total] exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016)". Others were younger than 18 when they were convicted, or had intellectual disabilities. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem.
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