African-American criminal defendants in Virginia and around the country are more likely to be wrongfully convicted according to a study released by the National Registry of Exonerations on March 7. The group, which works out of the University of Michigan Law School, came to this conclusion after studying the cases of 1,900 exonerated inmates who were wrongfully convicted between 1989 and 2016. While African-Americans make up only about 13 percent of the adult population of the United States, they accounted for 47 percent of the exonerations studied by the NRE.
Previous research has suggested widespread racial bias in the criminal justice system, and the NRE’s senior editor says that official misconduct of one sort or another was found in a worrying number of cases involving wrongfully convicted black defendants. The study suggests that African-Americans are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes they did not commit, and the group says that this is largely the result of institutional discrimination, unconscious bias and explicit racism.
More than a third of the 166 prisoners exonerated in 2016 were convicted in Texas, and district attorneys in cities including Dallas and Houston have set up integrity units to investigate cases of alleged racial bias. These units are likely to monitor the activities of laboratory technicians along with police officers and prosecutors as there have been a number of cases involving innocuous substances that forensics teams had identified as illegal drugs. Innocent defendants sometimes spend months or even years in jail before these mistakes are revealed.
Experienced criminal defense attorney will likely understand that the criminal justice system in the United States is far from perfect, and they may study police reports and search warrants carefully when those facing drug crime charges may have been denied protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. When forensic evidence could be unreliable, defense attorneys may call on scientific experts of their own to scrutinize the findings or conduct additional tests.