Lies, Prosecutorial Misconduct Behind Wrongful Convictions
A toxic brew of perjury and official misconduct contributed to nearly two-thirds of 31 wrongful convictions reversed in Oklahoma since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Convictions obtained in part by lies and misconduct pushed Oklahoma near the top of an exonerations list maintained since 2012 by the University of Michigan Law School. Based on 2015 population estimates, only five other states since 1989 have had a greater proportion of residents exonerated after a criminal conviction.
Tulsa County led Oklahoma’s race to the top of the wrongful conviction list. Tulsa County ranks among 27 jurisdictions nationwide with more than 10 exonerations listed in the database. Most of the other high-scoring jurisdictions are more populous than Tulsa County. Only three other counties with less population than Tulsa County have more exonerations on the list.
While the numbers are stark, their meaning is less than certain. Nationwide, new additions to the list of exonerations have increased dramatically in the past two years. A record 154 exonerations logged in 2015 broke a record of 140 set in 2014.
Either researchers have become more effective at tracking exonerations, or courts have become more sensitive to evidence of wrongful convictions, informed by attorneys who are better equipped to identify flawed convictions.
Oklahoma, however, was not part of the recent surge. Exonerations in Oklahoma, including in Tulsa County, have continued at a steady pace since 1989. Yet Tulsa County and Oklahoma continue to top the national exoneration list even when exonerations from other states are increasing.
Frequent Exonerations Are Evidence of Wrongful Convictions
Tulsa’s frequent exonerations could be seen either as a glass half full or a glass half empty. One the one hand, Oklahoma has demonstrated a capacity to identify and reverse some wrongful convictions. The abundance of wrongful convictions available to be reversed, however, could indicate a propensity for shoddy justice in Oklahoma’s court system.
The data indicates that lies and misconduct result in wrongful convictions more often than DNA evidence gets bad convictions reversed. Although DNA evidence contributed to some Oklahoma exonerations, nearly two-thirds were not the result of DNA evidence.
Likwise, while DNA-related exonerations increased only slightly and steadily nationwide, non-DNA exonerations surged in consecutive record-setting years. The growing number of exonerations nationwide appears to be not so much the result of improved science as it is the result of improved justice.
In only 12 of the 31 Oklahoma exonerations logged since 1989 did DNA evidence contribute to the eventual exoneration. The role of DNA in exonerations nonetheless looms very large, because the vast majority of criminal cases do not involve DNA evidence. When DNA evidence can be brought forward, it can be a power tool in overturning a wrongful conviction.
Perjury or false allegations contributed to underlying convictions in more than three out of five cases. Official misconduct played a role in 16 wrongful Oklahoma convictions. In 13, perjury or false accusations combined with official misconduct contributed.
Seven of the 31 wrongful convictions in Oklahoma involved death sentences after murder convictions. DNA contributed to only three of those death-row exonerations. Of 13 total murder defendants exonerated, only five were exonerated by DNA evidence.
Because sexual assault crimes are most likely to involve identifiable DNA evidence, DNA is most often factor in exoneration of Oklahoma sexual assault cases. Six sexual assault defendants were exonerated in Oklahoma. DNA played a role in five out of six.
Eight child sex abuse defendants were exonerated, seven after convictions involving perjury or false allegations, and only one of which was exonerated by DNA evidence. Two other Oklahoma exonerations followed robbery convictions. None of 31 Oklahoma exonerations since 1989 involved drug crimes.
Oklahoma’s lack of drug-crime exonerations is at odds with nationwide trends. Among all 50 states and in federal jurisdictions, about one-third of 154 recorded exonerations recorded in 2015 involved convictions for drug crimes.
Also missing from Oklahoma’s list was any Hispanic defendant. Of 1,740 defendants whose exonerations were recorded so far nationwide, 811 are African-American, 692 are Caucasian, 200 are Hispanic, and 36 are listed as other. Oklahoma’s tally lists 17 Caucasians and 12 African-Americans but no Hispanic defendants.
Oklahoma is among 24 states with the dubious distinction of exonerating a defendant who had been previously sentenced to death. With seven death penalty exonerations each, Oklahoma and North Carolina share the seventh rank, behind Ohio (8), Arizona (8) , Florida (8), Louisiana (10) , Texas (11) and Illinois (18).
Conviction Integrity Units Drive Exoneration Surge
Researchers at the Exoneration Registry attribute part of the recent national surge in exonerations to the spread of conviction integrity units in more populous counties. The Michigan Law School researchers report the number of conviction integrity units nationwide quadrupled nationwide during the past four years. None of the 24 conviction integrity units are located in Oklahoma.
The University of Michigan Law School registry attributes 151 exonerations to the work of conviction integrity units since 2003. Five integrity units in metropolitan counties have contributed. Of those, 73 were drug convictions reversed in Harris County, Texas during 2014 and 2015. Another 22 were defendants exonerated after murder convictions.
Although the earliest conviction integrity units were established in cities of 1 million or more residents, they have since take hold in mid-sized cities. Three are located in cities or counties with populations less than half the population of Tulsa County. Another five are located in metropolitan counties about the same size or slightly larger than Tulsa County.
The University of Michigan Law School researchers estimate the national data on exonerations represents just a “drop in the bucket” as compared to actual numbers of wrongful convictions. They suggest the problem is not limited to just over 500 counties identified in the data, out of more than 3,000 counties that conduct criminal trials across the nation.
Free Consultation: Tulsa Defense Attorney
Finding justice for someone who has exhausted all routine opportunities for post-conviction relief is no easy matter. The best way to avoid wrongful conviction when you are wrongfully accused is approach the court prepared with strong arguments, good evidence and an effective attorney. The best legal defense, however, cannot always persuade a jury when witnesses lie, police hide evidence and prosecutors break the rules.
If you are facing criminal charges in Tulsa County, contact a Tulsa defense lawyer at Wirth Law Office to find out what your options are before it is too late. For a free consultation with a criminal attorney in Tulsa, call (918) 879-1681 or send your question using the form at the top of this page.