Given that California has by far the largest population, half again as large as number two Texas, the state "leads the nation" on just about any social statistic one cares to measure if the measurement is in raw numbers and not per capita.
On the specific question at issue in this release, the first question we should ask is whether these "wrongful convictions" or "exonerations" represent convictions of crimes that the defendant actually did not commit. As with the notorious, discredited death row exoneration list, there is no requirement of actual innocence to get on the list. Here are the criteria, from the Project's website:
To be included in the study, a case must (1) originate in a California state or federal court, (2) result in a conviction, (3) be reversed, overturned of dismissed on all counts by trial court, appellate court, or a federal court after January 1, 1989, (4) result in either full acquittal or dismissal on remand.Innocence is not required. Proof of innocence is not required. Evidence of innocence is not required. All that is required is that the proof of guilt remaining available and admissible at the time of retrial is not sufficient to convince a jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Either a prosecutor decides the remaining evidence is insufficient and dismisses the case, or a jury decides the evidence is insufficient and returns an acquittal.
Our system is intentionally skewed in the defendant's favor, knowing full well that sometimes charges against guilty people will be dismissed, and sometimes guilty people who go to trial will be acquitted. Exhibit A: O.J. Simpson. When such a result occurs on a retrial, that does not mean that the first conviction was "wrongful" in the sense of convicting an innocent person. That is sometimes the case, but very often not. See, e.g., the Timothy Hennis case.
Update: The California District Attorneys' Association has issued a press release in response. It is copied after the jump.
Carl V. adams
First Vice President
DEAN D. FLIPPO
Second Vice President
GILBERT G. OTERO
STEPHEN M. WAGSTAFFE
San Mateo County
Gregory d. totten
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Santa Barbara County
Contra Costa County
Santa Barbara County
LARRY D. MORSE II
San Bernardino County
VERNON R. PIERSON
El Dorado County
ANNE MARIE SCHUBERT
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
W. SCOTT THORPE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Cory Salzillo
Thursday, October 25, 2012 Office: (916) 443-2017
Cell: (916) 213-0495
Prosecutors Condemn "Wrongful Convictions" Statement
(Sacramento, Calif.) - Sutter County District Attorney and California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) President Carl V. Adams condemned a press release issued yesterday by representatives of the California Wrongful Convictions Project announcing preliminary data relative to wrongful convictions in the state of California. This press statement claims that California leads the nation in wrongful convictions and yet provides no meaningful context or appropriate criteria by which to measure such an assertion and freely admits that the completed report will not be released until next year. "Issuing a press release in late October to announce that a report will be published next year is a cheap political vehicle to try to influence the upcoming election," said Adams.
The press statement asserts that since 1989, the project has uncovered 214 cases in which courts have exonerated the defendant or dismissed convictions. It is worth noting here that in this same time period, there have been approximately five million adult felony convictions in California, a point the press release fails to acknowledge. To arrive at their number, according to their own press statement, researchers included cases involving "official misconduct, insufficient evidence, findings of innocence, ineffective defense, and legal error."
"The problem with this methodology," said Adams, "is that only the 'findings of innocence' can reasonably be called 'exonerations.' In the other cases, while convictions may have been overturned or dismissed, one cannot assume that the defendant was factually innocent of the offense. Having an incompetent defense attorney does not alter whether or not a person committed a crime."
Prosecutors further criticized the fact that raw numbers of so-called wrongful convictions from several states were provided instead of a comparison of those data to each state's population. Although the project claims that California "leads the nation in exonerations as defined by the National Registry of Exonerations," it makes no mention of the fact that California's population greatly exceeds the populations of the other three states (Illinois, Texas, and New York).
"When compared, more meaningfully, to overall population, California's rate of 'wrongful convictions' (3.2 per one million population) is the lowest of the states mentioned," said Adams. "Based on the data provided in the press release and 2011 United States Census statistics, the rate in Texas is 3.9 per one million population, New York's rate is 5.1 per one million population, and Illinois's figure is 8.6 per one million population."
"Yesterday's press statement by the leaders of this project of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law is irresponsible and misleading," said Adams. "Their own press release notes that the project will not be released until 2013, and yet they chose to publicize these preliminary data now. I do not believe for one moment that this statement being issued less than two weeks before Californians decide whether to retain the death penalty, and in the midst of the proponents' campaign making wild and inaccurate claims about the frequency of persons being wrongfully placed on death row is pure happenstance. The press release is without context because the report will not be issued until next year and the data have been gravely mischaracterized."
"District attorneys are relentless in their pursuit of justice and ensuring that no person is wrongfully convicted is at the top of every prosecutor's mind," concluded Adams. "That said, the fear-mongering taking place in this situation tells only a tiny part of a story that ends with prosecutors protecting California citizens from dangerous criminals and defending the public's ability to rely on the fairness of our justice system."