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Over 29,100 years ‘lost’ in prison in wrongful convictions, database finds

Written by on March 18, 2023

WIN-Initiative/Neleman/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Sidney Holmes, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 400 years, was exonerated after 34 years in prison. Lamar Johnson was wrongfully convicted of a shooting without physical evidence connecting him to the incident and sentenced to life in prison. Leon Benson has been freed after 25 years of a more than 60-year sentence for a crime he maintains he did not commit.

These men are just a few in the more than a dozen people have been exonerated so far this year, due to wrongful convictions based on misidentifications, false confessions, police failure to disclose evidence and more.

These exonerations have been recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989, an exoneration-tracking project hosted by University of California Irvine, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.

There have been at least 3,287 exonerations recorded by the National Registry of Exonerations since 1989.

More than 29,100 years have been “lost” in prison due to “wrongful convictions” that have been uncovered thus far, according to the registry.

“We’ve all been raised to believe that our system is a great system that works well, that we identify the right people, we convict the right people, we give people the right sentences,” said attorney Marissa Boyers Bluestine, assistant director at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, in an interview with ABC News.

“It has been a very hard awakening for a lot of people to realize that that’s just not always the case,” she said.

The registry found that the most often cited factors for wrongful convictions are: witness misidentification, false accusation, false confession, faulty forensic evidence, inadequate legal defense, police misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct.

In some cases, the methods used to collect evidence in the past have since been proven to be scientifically unreliable, according to experts. This was the case with Sidney Holmes, whose armed robbery conviction was recently overturned in part because of misidentification, which was partly due to outdated photo and live lineup practices commonly used by law enforcement in the 1980s, officials say.

Black people represent 53% of the 3,200 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations, despite making up just 13.6% of the American population. Black people represent 38% of the incarcerated population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

“Innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes,” the registry said in a 2022 report.

According to Bluestine, the only way to overturn someone’s conviction is to have “something new, something different that wasn’t heard by the trial court.”

“That’s why it takes 10, 15, 30 years to undo those convictions because we have to wait for that evidence to become available to change how we’re seeing a conviction,” she said.

The list of exonerated people is long. Here are just some of the wrongfully convicted cases that have been overturned so far in 2023:

Sidney Holmes

Holmes, 57, served more than 34 years of a 400-year prison sentence before the Broward State Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in Florida reinvestigated the case and determined he did not commit armed robbery.

The CRU found that there is “no evidence” connecting Holmes to the robbery besides a flawed identification of him and the vehicle involved in the robbery.

The CRU found that witness identification of Holmes was likely a “misidentification,” partly due to the photo and live lineup practices commonly used by law enforcement at the time, which are “scientifically unreliable,” according to the state attorney’s office.

Lamar Johnson

In Missouri, Lamar Johnson spent roughly 28 years behind bars for a murder he said he did not commit. He was convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in 1994, according to Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner’s motion to vacate his conviction. Johnson was sentenced to life in prison.

Gardner asserted that Johnson was innocent and erroneously convicted, citing Johnson’s alibi and a lack of physical evidence connecting Johnson to the murder.

According to Gardner, the identification of Johnson was the state’s “only direct evidence.”

Judge David Mason vacated Johnson’s conviction in February.

“Today the courts righted a wrong – vacating the sentence of Mr. Lamar Johnson following his wrongful conviction in 1995,” said Gardner in a Feb. 14 statement on the decision. “Most importantly, we celebrate with Mr. Johnson and his family as he walks out of the courtroom as a free man.”

Leon Benson

Leon Benson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1999, and spent roughly 25 years in prison before the Marion County Superior Court Judge Shatrese M. Flowers in Indiana threw out his conviction in early March.

A joint re-investigation by the University of San Francisco School of Law Racial Justice Clinic and the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office revealed that “evidence buried in the police file by the lead detective pointed to another man as the murderer.”

Researchers found that conflicting testimony and the missing evidence identified someone else in the 1998 shooting death of Kasey Schoen in Indianapolis.

​​“Truth never dies,” Benson said, according to a press release from the University of San Francisco. “It is only rediscovered.”

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