Wrongful convictions have been at the center of public discourse lately. Every few weeks, there’s a headline about a new exoneration, some poor guy locked up for 20 years for a crime it turned out he did not commit. In 2013, 87 people were exonerated across America, the most in any year on record.
In New York City, and even nationally, Kings County is at the forefront this wave of overturned convictions. Brooklyn, after all, has had the highest-profile faces at every layer: David Ranta, the innocent man who spent 23 years in prison after being found guilty of killing a rabbi; Louis Scarcella, the detective accused of fabricating confessions and coaching witnesses; Michael Vecchione, the prosecutor accused of hiding evidence of a defendant’s innocence; Charles Hynes, the politically minded D.A. who seemed to turn a blind eye to the misconduct that led to the as-yet-undetermined number of false convictions; and current Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson, who unseated Hynes by vowing to clean up the office and whose staff is reviewing nearly 100 questionable convictions, including 56 involving Scarcella.
It’s enough to make an intelligent, well-read New Yorker think that Brooklyn is the city’s wrongful conviction capital. But that New Yorker would be wrong. In fact, it is the Bronx that holds that dubious title.
See also this week’s feature story: The Prisoner’s Daughter: What if your dad had been doing time for murder for as long as you’d known him?
From January 1989 through December 2013, Brooklyn and the Bronx each had 29 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Nationally, the two counties tied for fourth place for highest total. Manhattan was sixth, with 26. Cook County, Illinois, a populous and sprawling area that includes Chicago, had the most by far, with 95.
The Bronx, of course, contains a million fewer residents than Brooklyn.
Per capita, Bronx County had the highest rate of exonerations in the state, and ranked fifth nationwide, while Brooklyn did not crack the top ten. Cook County ranked seventh, and Manhattan ranked eighth.
A slightly different data set, looking at convictions between 1985 to 2007, offers some additional details. From that period, 32 people were exonerated in the Bronx; 29 of them were convicted between 1985 and 1999. Fourteen of those 29 spent at least a decade in prison.
Of those 32, 12 involved a mistaken witness identification. Only one of the exonerations involved DNA evidence.
The data also show the extent to which exonerations, and, therefore, wrongful convictions by extension, are disproportionately spread across the city. While the Bronx and Brooklyn each had more than 30 exonerations stemming from convictions between ’85 and ’07, Manhattan had 24, Queens had 18, and Staten Island had one.
When the boroughs combine forces, though, they help push New York state to the top of the rankings. New York led the country in exoneration between 1989 and 2013, with 152, 16 more than the next closest state.
Next: The National Registry of Exonerations’s 2013 report.