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.