Police misconduct is a leading cause of wrongful convictions in New York and across the country, according to a 2020 study. The research was conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project that collects data on wrongful convictions to prevent future cases of injustice.
For the study, researchers analyzed 2,400 convictions of defendants who were later exonerated over a period of three decades. They found that 35% of cases involved some sort of police misconduct, such as falsifying evidence, witness tampering or violent interrogations. More than half involved wrongful actions by police or prosecutors.
Researchers found that hiding evidence favorable to defendants was the most common type of misconduct associated with false convictions. As an example, the study cited the case of a woman who was wrongfully convicted of killing her boyfriend after prosecutors failed to disclose a medical report indicating he died by suicide.
The study also found police sometimes falsified evidence to get convictions. For instance, a man spent two years in prison after Chattanooga police officers claimed he assaulted them at a reentry facility. However, video evidence later revealed the man only tried to protect himself after officers beat him without provocation.
Black defendants common victims of police misconduct
Researchers found Black defendants were disproportionately affected by police misconduct and wrongful convictions. For example, 78% of murder cases where Black defendants were convicted and later exonerated involved some sort of misconduct. Only 64% of cases with white defendants involved misconduct. Worse, 87% of Black defendants sentenced to death before being exonerated were victims of misconduct, compared to 68% of white defendants.
While there have been some reforms in recent years, the authors of the study said police misconduct still happens with alarming regularity. They also said misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions often goes undiscovered and unpunished.