Study: Race a Factor in Wrongful Convictions

A report on exonerations reveals troubling trends, especially in rape cases.

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"There are many possible explanations for this disturbing pattern," the authors say. "Of all the problems that plague the American system of criminal justice, few are as incendiary as the relationship between race and rape. Nobody would be surprised to find that bias and discrimination continue to play a role in rape prosecutions. Still, the simplest explanation for this racial disparity is probably also the most powerful: the perils of cross-racial identification. One of the strongest findings of systematic studies of eyewitness evidence is that white Americans are much more likely to mistake one black person for another than to do the same for members of their own race."

All in all, this registry is a good thing, providing as it does a snapshot into what goes wrong in prosecutions and a resource for those trying to correct miscarriages of justice. But to maximize its effectiveness, it needs the input of many more people to fill the gaps, the authors acknowledge.

"We will learn more as the registry matures and we gather data about a larger number of exonerations across a wider range of settings. The more we learn about false convictions, the better able we will be to prevent them or, failing that, to identify and correct them after the fact."

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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