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Black defendants more likely to be wrongfully convicted

Caucasian defendants in California and around the country are far more likely to be acquitted than African-Americans facing criminal charges according to research published on March 7 by the National Registry of Exonerations. The University of Michigan-based group studied the cases of 1,900 imprisoned defendants who were later exonerated, and they found that almost half of them were of African-American descent. African Americans make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, and the senior editor of the registry put the disproportionately high number of exonerated black defendants down to racial bias and widespread prosecutorial misconduct.

The data suggests that black defendants are treated especially unfairly in drug cases. According to the NRE research, African-Americans facing drug charges are about 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white defendants. Prosecutors around the country are taking steps to address the issue, and integrity units have been set up in Houston and Dallas to look into questionable drug convictions involving minority defendants.

More than a third of the 166 inmates exonerated in 2016 were incarcerated in Texas, and the data indicates that many of these prisoners pleaded guilty to serious drug charges because they did not believe they would be treated fairly in court. Some prisoners were exonerated after spending months or years in jail when it was discovered that crime labs had mistakenly identified illegal drugs in seized materials.

African-American defendants sometimes plead guilty to drug charges because they feel that the evidence against them is overwhelming, but prosecutors understand that proving criminal charges beyond reasonable doubt is rarely straightforward. These cases often hinge on the admissibility of materials seized during property searches, and experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to have drug charges reduced or dismissed when police officers seem to have strayed beyond boundaries established by the U.S. Constitution.

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John Patrick Ryan has been practicing law for over 20 years. Experienced in criminal law. U.S. Navy Veteran.