The wrongful conviction of Ronnie Long might appear shocking: No physical evidence, false testimony, a conflicting description of the suspect, and 44-years in prison for Long
Experts and advocates aren't surprised say U.S. prisons are filled with potentially thousands of innocent people. While Long's case is egregious, experts told USA Today some of the factors that led to his imprisonment are still causing wrongful convictions today.
Long, a 68-year-old Black man who is set to receive a $25 million settlement, was convicted by an all-white jury for the rape of a white woman. Evidence that could have exonerated Long was not shared with the defense and police officers gave false testimony during the trial, according to Duke Law School's Wrongful Convictions Clinic.
Despite Long not matching the victim's original description of her assailant, the prosecution relied on the victim’s identification of Long as their main piece of evidence.
"When you take a look at the role that race and official misconduct played in Ronnie Long's wrongful conviction, this is unfortunately common practice in our criminal legal system," said Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project's director of special litigation. "So it's not an outlier."
Since 1989, more than 3,400 people have been exonerated of crimes they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Those wrongfully convicted people spent more than 31,000 years in prison.
The number of exonerations has grown by almost 70% since 2017 — 3,200 compared to 1,900.
Maurice Possley of the registry said the recent uptick is driven in part by cases like that of Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who charged people in and around a since-demolished housing project with crimes they did not commit. Since 2016, prosecutors have moved to vacate at least 226 convictions and juvenile adjudications connected to Watts and his team.
In 2011, Mother Jones estimated that 1% of the prison population were falsely convicted, an extrapolation based on known DNA exonerations in the U.S. since the late 1980s.
The National Registry of Exonerations tracks six common factors that lead to a wrongful conviction: official misconduct, perjury or false accusation, false or misleading forensic evidence, false confession, mistaken witness identification and inadequate legal defense. Possley said the most common factors are official misconduct and perjury.