Prosecutors and police cooperated more than ever before in 2012 to free people falsely convicted of crimes they didn't commit, according to a new study.
Last year, 63 people were exonerated, according to figures compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations. In more than half of the cases, law enforcement officials launched the process to clear the names of the innocent -- or at least cooperated with reviews triggered by others.
The participation of district attorneys and cops in 54 percent of the exonerations stands in stark contrast to previous years tallied by the Registry. Going back to 1989, researchers spotted the helping hand of law enforcement in only 30 percent of the exonerations.
"We see a clear trend. Prosecutors and police are more open to re-investigating cases and clearing the names of innocent people who were wrongfully convicted," said University of Michigan law professor and Registry editor Samuel Gross in a statement. "This is as it should be. The purpose of law enforcement is to seek truth and pursue justice. I’m glad to see they are now doing so more often after conviction, to help correct some of the terrible mistakes we sometimes make."
The findings about police and prosecutorial cooperation were contained in the Registry's annual report, released this week.
The insinuation that law enforcement sometimes drags their heels when confronted with the possibility that the wrong person is behind bars was immediately criticized by the National District Attorneys Association.
"It’s offensive because that’s our job all the time is to … hold the guilty accountable, but our job is (also) to make sure that the innocent are acquitted or exonerated," Executive Director Scott Burns told NBC News. "We do that in every case."
The Registry is an imperfect clearinghouse of the country's false convictions. An analysis of cases back to 1989 has turned up 1,050 exonerations. Besides the exonerations that took place in 2012, researchers added 120 that had been previously overlooked to their archives.
As best as they can, researchers track reports of who's been pardoned, found not guilty during appeals or let out of prison through other arrangements.
The expansion of post-conviction DNA testing and the creation of panels often called conviction integrity units contribute to the increased role of law enforcement in exonerations, researchers said.
A conviction integrity unit in the Brooklyn district attorney's office played a prime role in the release last month of a New York man convicted of killing an Orthodox Jewish rabbi in 1990.
David Ranta served more than 20 years for the shooting death of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger during a bungled diamond robbery in Brooklyn, until the district attorney's office recommended letting him out, because of police misconduct and fraudulent witness testimony.
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Audrey Edmunds poses at the John C. Burke Correctional Center in Waupun, Wis., <a href="http://www.law.northwestern.edu/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/wiEdmundsSummary.html">10 years into serving an 18-year sentence for shaking a baby to death</a> while babysitting. She was freed in February 2008 after an appeals court said new research into shaken baby syndrome cast doubt on her guilt. According to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, experts concluded that symptoms they once thought were proof of a shaken baby can result from other causes, <a href="http://www.law.northwestern.edu/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/wiEdmundsSummary.html" target="_blank">including accidents, illness, infection, old injuries and congenital defects.</a>
Kirk Bloodsworth spent eight years in a Baltimore County, Md., prison, two of those on death row. He was convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl. In 1993, DNA testing both excluded Bloodsworth as the child’s killer and helped convict the real killer. It was the first capital conviction case in the U.S. to be overturned through DNA testing. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kirk-noble-bloodsworth/overturned_b_59325.html">Read Bloodsworth's firsthand account here</a>.
Michael Blair was sent to death row in Texas for the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/13/michael-blair-texas-rape-compensation_n_2123212.html">murder of 7-year-old Ashley Estell </a>in 1994. More than a decade later, genetic testing showed he was innocent. But while behind bars, Blair confessed to raping two other children, a crime for which he's serving multiple life sentences. In 2012, Blair asked the state for nearly $1 million as compensation for being wrongfully convicted of Ashley's murder.
Damon Thibodeaux was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/28/damon-thibodeaux-death-row_n_1924776.html">absolved of the rape and murder</a> of his 14-year-old step cousin. A seven-year investigation produced DNA evidence contradicting his confession to the crime. Investigators say Thibodeaux confessed in 1997 while under duress from detectives. The 37-year-old had spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison awaiting his execution.
John Edward Smith, a former gang member, spent 19 years in prison for murder following a gang-related drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. He was released in September 2012 after the only <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/24/john-edward-smith-exonerated_n_1910026.html">witness to the incident admitted</a> that the police had pressured him to blame Smith for the murder.
Lynn DeJac Peters <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/13/lynn-dejac-peters_n_2122595.html">spent more than 13 years</a> in the maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. She was wrongfully convicted of strangling her 13-year-old daughter on Valentine's Day in 1993. In 2007, DNA testing placed Peters' boyfriend, Dennis Donohue, at the scene of the crime, but prosecutors could not bring charges against him: He'd received immunity when testifying before the grand jury that originally charged Peters. Donohue was later convicted in the September 1993 strangulation death of another woman and is serving 25 years to life in prison.
William Dillon, wrongly incarcerated in a Florida prison for 27 years, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/william-dillon-wrongly-convicted-national-anthem-tampa-bay-rays_n_1683772.html">sang the National Anthem as a free man</a> at a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game in July 2012. Dillon had been charged -- just days before a scheduled Detroit Tigers tryout -- with <a href="http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/William_Dillon.php" target="_blank">beating James Dvorak to death </a>in a wooded area near Canova Beach, Fla. He was <a href="http://www.jaxdailyrecord.com/showstory.php?Story_id=530164">exonerated in 2008</a>.
On March 29, 2012, Michael Morton of Austin, Texas, spoke to the public for the first time since he was freed from prison after spending nearly 25 years behind bars for murdering his wife. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/texas-man-imprisoned-for-_0_n_992681.html">New DNA tests done on a bandana</a> found near Morton's home discovered blood from his wife and a California felon, suggesting the the latter man, not Morton, committed the crime.
In January 2013, former Akron, Ohio, police captain Douglas Prade was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/26/doug-prade-ohio-prisioner-dna-margo-prade_n_1831151.html">exonerated of the murder of his ex-wife</a>. He had spent 15 years in the Madison Correctional Institution outside Columbus, largely because of a bite mark found on his ex-wife's blood-soaked body. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/30/doug-prade-released-ex-wife-murder_n_2580876.html" target="_blank">DNA testing proved he was innocent. </a>