The rate of exonerations for wrongful convictions has increased tenfold since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking the data in 1989.

In 1989, there were 24 exonerations and in 2022, there were 250. This was the start of DNA exonerations. In total, more than 31,000 years have been lost by innocent people spending an average of 11.6 years behind bars.

“We don’t know how many wrongful convictions there are,” said Maurice Possley, a researcher with the National Registry of Exonerations. “What we know are the ones that ended in exoneration.”

That data also shows that innocent Black people are 7.5 times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. That applies to those who are sentenced to death and those who are not. 

“It’s a human system,” said Possley. “There will always be mistakes…People still frame people. We know that based on our data.”

The demand for organizations that represent and help people post-release is growing. Jon Eldan, founder and executive director of After Innocence, said his organization has helped more than 800 people nationwide since 2016 to get their lives back on track.

“We know we’re not doing what we should do to prevent wrongful convictions,” said Eldan. “We’ve studied for many, many years. Many of the leading causes, including the use of junk science, inadequate legal defense and we’re not committed to solving those problems.”

Wrongful convictions can be a result of eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, misleading forensic evidence and police or prosecutorial misconduct. 

Michael Rhynes spent 37 years in prison for a double murder in Rochester until the informants who testified at his trial admitted they lied to reduce their sentences.

Renay Lynch was released after 26 years for a murder she cannot be retried for by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office due to a lack of evidence and witnesses. A dozen fingerprints from the scene were discovered missing from the original trial.

After their release, Eldan said these exonerees are often left on their own with no help rebuilding their lives and little to no money in reparations, as well as the burden of the stigma of their incarceration.

“People would think that you are getting some kind of compensation or reparations from the state,” said Eldan. “That is possible in many and in fact most states, but the process for getting that money and what you actually get is both difficult and often not very satisfactory.” 

These mistakes and gaps in help are why Eldan is calling for changes to prevent wrongful convictions and provide effective post-release support to exonerees.