San Francisco Magazine

November, 2004


Since 1989, at least 200 inmates have been released from California prisons after courts found that they were unjustly convicted. This figure includes mass exonerations in the Ramparts police scandal in Los Angeles and in the Kern County ritual child sex-abuse cases, as well as dozens of individual cases in which an innocent person was erroneously convicted of murder, sexual assault, robbery, a three-strikes violation, or a less serious crime. The figure does not include two other types of wrongful convictions that are more common: people who were denied a fair trial but were probably guilty, and people who were convicted on more serious charges than their actual crimes warranted.

In trying to understand the reasons behind California's wrongful conviction problem, San Francisco did a detailed analysis of 30 cases from around the state, culled from a variety of sources. All but one of the cases involved people serving life or very long sentences. We did not look at exonerations involving death sentences (the single exception: one inmate whose original sentence of death was reduced on appeal to life without parole; he served another 11 years before new evidence emerged, leading to his release). We left out the 100 to 150 Ramparts cases, which mostly involved shorter sentences, as well as most of the Kern County sex-abuse cases; both would have slanted the sample, especially the findings related to police and prosecutorial misconduct.


Factors leading to wrongful conviction:

60 percent of the wrongful convictions involved at least one mistaken eyewitness
33 percent involved false testimony by a key witness at trial
20 percent involved false testimony by an informant at trial
63 percent entailed misconduct or serious error by police
50 percent entailed misconduct or serious error by prosecutors at trial
43 percent involved serious errors by defense lawyers at trial
13 percent involved incorrect lab results or faulty science


10 percent of the wrongful convictions were overturned on direct appeal
63 percent were overturned on a habeas petition in the state courts*
27 percent were overturned on a habeas petition in the federal courts*
13 percent were overturned on a habeas petition by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals*
23 percent were overturned as a result of DNA testing
Average length of incarceration: 13 years
Average compensation theoretically owed by state (assuming $100 for each day of wrongful imprisonment): $474,500
*Includes cases that had multiple appeals.


African American: 43 percent
White: 40 percent
Latino: 10 percent
Asian American: 3 percent
Other: 3 percent


Los Angeles: 37 percent (11 cases, including 4 from Long Beach, or 13 percent of total)
Orange County: 13 percent (4 cases)
San Diego County: 10 percent (3 cases)
Bay Area counties: 20 percent (6 cases)

Click HERE to read the case summaries at San Francisco Magazine

Click HERE for the entire article in .pdf format (read with Acrobat Reader)

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