After four days of police interrogation in October 1992, then-19-year-old Juan Rivera confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Waukegan, Illinois. Rivera was sentenced to life in prison for a crime that DNA later proved he did not commit.
In 2011, Rivera was exonerated after serving 20 years in prison, becoming one of the 102 Illinois prisoners exonerated since 1989 after being wrongfully convicted, according to a new database of wrongful convictions nationwide, created by professors from the University of Michigan School of Law and the Northwestern University Center for Wrongful Convictions.
Illinois has the largest number of discovered wrongful convictions, according to the researchers, but that does not mean its justice system is the nation's most dysfunctional.
“It's clear that the exonerations we found are the tip of an iceberg,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, who authored the report and edited the registry. “Most people who are falsely convicted are not exonerated; they serve their time or die in prison. And when they are exonerated, a lot of times it happens quietly, out of public view.”
The researchers profiled 891 exonerations from 1989-2011 for offenses ranging from drug crimes to murder. After Illinois, states with the most exonerations were New York (88), Texas (87), California (84), Michigan (36), Louisiana (35), Florida (32), Pennsylvania (29), Ohio (28) and Massachusetts (27).
In the last 10 years, 11 states, including seven of the 10 states with the largest number of exonerations, have created Criminal Justice Reform Commissions devoted to examining the causes of wrongful convictions and providing policy recommendations, according to The Innocence Project, a national non-profit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted. And in 44 states, innocence projects run by law firms or universities investigate innocence claims and bring suits on behalf of potentially wrongfully convicted inmates. One such organization, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, led the case to exonerate Rivera in 2011.
The researchers also found at least 1,170 other exonerations that resulted from group exonerations often for widespread police abuses. For instance, from 1995-1998 in Philadelphia, 138 felony defendants were exonerated after it was discovered that five city narcotics officers were routinely planting drugs on suspects and manufacturing evidence.
The main causes of wrongful conviction are threefold: mistaken witness identification, perjury or a false accusation as happened in the Rivera case, and official misconduct, according to data analysis from the report.