How many is too many?
Over the past quarter century in the United States, there have been more than 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations, according to the Innocence Project, and the National Registry of Exonerations has identified over 1,600 exonerations since 1989. Experts attribute wrongful convictions to several causes, including misidentification by an eyewitness, improper forensic evidence, false confessions and the use of informants who testify against the accused.
No authoritative count of wrongful convictions in the rest of the world exists but one estimate comes from an unlikely source. Hans Sherrer, a former plumber living in Washington state, started tracking international wrongful convictions in 1996 and maintains the only known database for exonerations in the United States and abroad. He has counted more than 5,800 wrongful convictions worldwide, dating as far back as the early 20th century.
Wrongful convictions also contribute to a related problem—prison overcrowding. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and one of the leading incarceration rates, with about 2.2 million inmates, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. And the number is growing. All five continents have experienced growth in prison population over the past 15 years. The estimated world prison population has increased by 25 percent to 30 percent, while the world population has grown by about 20 percent.
There is no way to know with certainty how many innocent people have been executed due to wrongful convictions. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there’s strong evidence that at least 11 people who have been executed in the United States were innocent. However, a 2014 study published in the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that over the past 35 years, as many as 50 innocent people in the United States may have been executed.
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Wrongful Convictions by Country
Over the past two decades, Hans Sherrer has gathered information about wrongful convictions across the world largely from English-language press accounts and organizations devoted to investigating potentially wrongful convictions. The Medill Justice Project, which verified his sources, tabulated Sherrer’s findings by nation to try to better understand the extent of wrongful convictions internationally, given the dearth of data on the topic. Because of the sources of Sherrer’s information, the tally, per nation, may reflect in part where wrongful convictions are most often reported.
|United Arab Emirates||17|
|Republic of (South) Korea||12|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||11|
|Trinidad and Tobago||9|
|Turks and Caicos Islands||5|
|Virgin Islands (British)||4|
|Netherlands (Dutch) Antilles||2|
|Isle of Man||1|
|Northern Mariana Islands||1|
|The Island of Jersey||1|
|United Nations court in the Hague||1|
Data from Hans Sherrer’s Innocents Database
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