A new national study has found that Santa Clara County ranks third statewide in the number of people exonerated for committing major crimes.
The study, entitled the National Registry of Exonerations, is the first by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
Santa Clara County ranked 13th out of 299 counties in 44 states, including the District of Columbia. But although the figure is high, that does not reflect whether the county is wrongfully convicting more people or is more zealously being pursued for wrongful convictions. The latter could more likely contribute to the numbers, according to the report.
"Santa Clara County, Calif. -- home of the Northern California Innocence Project -- has 10 exonerations; directly to its north, Alameda County has more violent crime but no exonerations. ... One important conclusion of the report is that there are many more exonerations than we know about," authors Samuel R. Gross and Michael Shaffer noted.
Santa Clara County's exonerated includes East Palo Alto resident Quedillis Ricardo (Rick) Walker. He was exonerated in 2003 after a 1991 murder conviction kept him incarcerated for 12 years.
From January 1989 through March 1, 2012, 873 people were exonerated nationally of serious crimes after conviction, including for murder and rape. Exonerations have averaged 52 a year -- one per week -- since 2000. In 40 percent of those cases, DNA evidence overturned the convictions, according to the report.
The report defines exonerations narrowly, listing only formal decisions by courts and executive officers, such as mayors.
"It excludes many convicted defendants who undoubtedly are innocent," the authors noted.
The registry discusses but excludes at least 1,170 people whose convictions were dismissed in 13 "group exonerations," which followed the discovery of major police scandals.
The registry's exonerations "are unevenly distributed geographically," the authors noted. They concentrated in several states, led by Illinois, New York, Texas and California. Some counties, such as Cook (Chicago) Ill., and Dallas, Tex., have dozens of exonerations; other counties with millions of people, such as San Bernardino, Calif., and Fairfax, Va., have none. And neighboring counties are often divergent in their numbers.
Among the registry's findings:
93 percent of exonerated persons are men
50 percent are black, 38 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Native-American or Asian
37 percent were exonerated with help from DNA evidence; 63 percent without DNA
As a group, they spent more than 10,000 years in prison -- an average of more than 11 years each
DNA exonerations are increasingly from older cases. The average time from conviction to DNA exoneration is 18 years
Since 2008 most DNA exonerations are for murder and rape-murder convictions
Of all exonerations: 48 percent were for homicides, including death sentences (12 percent); sexual assaults (35 percent); robberies (5 percent); other violent crimes (5 percent); drug, white collar or other non-violent crimes (7 percent)
Causes of false convictions include: perjury or false accusation (51 percent); mistaken eyewitness identification (43 percent); official misconduct (42 percent); false or misleading forensic evidence (24 percent) and false confession (16 percent)
The leading contributing cause of false convictions for homicides is perjury or false accusation, including 44 percent deliberately misidentified; 56 percent also involved official misconduct
In sexual assault cases, the leading contributing cause of false convictions was overwhelmingly mistaken eyewitness identification (80 percent); 53 percent of sexual assault convictions with mistaken eyewitness identification involved black men accused of raping white women. This huge racial disproportion is probably caused by the difficulty of cross-racial eyewitness identification
Child sex abuse exonerations primarily involved fabricated crimes that did not occur (74 percent)
Robbery exonerations are overwhelmingly cases with mistaken eyewitness identifications (81 percent)
A list of exonerations by state is available here.
The National Registry of Exonerations is also seeking public input on any misinformation or omitted exonerations.