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In case you’ve ever wondered how many innocent people are in prison, the quick answer is:

Way too many. 

That’s a cop-out, we get it.

Don’t worry, though, we’ve got the actual numbers for you.

The thing is:

Erroneous convictions are among the worst cases in which the social contract between the state and citizens is broken. As a result, an innocent person is sent to serve time for something they didn’t do.

Wrongful convictions statistics show that the main reasons many end up behind bars are misidentification, official misconduct, false testimony, perjury, false accusation, and false confession. 

At The High Court, we decided to dig deep and explore the most relevant facts and stats about wrongful convictions in the United States.

Depressing Wrong Convictions Stats (Editor’s Picks)

  • Between 2% and 10% of convicted individuals in US prisons are innocent.
  • 2,666 people have been exonerated in the US since 1989.
  • Proven innocent people have served more than 23,950 years in prison so far.
  • Out of 100 sentenced to death, 4 are likely innocent, but only 2 get exonerated.
  • 69% of wrongful conviction cases happen due to eyewitness misidentification.
  • False confessions account for 29% of wrongful convictions.
  • Official misconduct plays a part in 31% of murder exonerations.
  • False accusations are present in 70% of wrongful convictions.

General Statistics on Wrongful Convictions in the US

The wrongful conviction definition says it’s a conviction that at the time seems to be the rightful one, coming from a rightful arrest. It must include a public statement about the committed crime happening and a particular individual or individuals being found responsible for committing the crime, which is proven wrong at a later date. By law, it’s defined as a miscarriage of justice and also referred to as a failure of justice.

With that in mind, let’s dive right in:

1. Between 2% and 10% of convicted individuals in US prisons are innocent.

(Source: La Times NCRJS)

According to the 2019 annual report by the National Registry of Exonerations, wrongful convictions statistics show that the percentage of wrongful convictions is somewhere between 2% and 10%

Which begs the question:

How many are wrongly convicted? 

Keeping in mind that there are over 2.3 million incarcerated individuals in the United States, we can see that the number of innocent people behind bars is anywhere from 46,000 to 230,000.

That’s quite a frightening number.

But how many innocent people have been exonerated?

2. Over 2400 people have been exonerated in the United States since 1989.

(Source: Springer Link, The Innocence Project, Michigan Law)

When it comes to the number of wrongful convictions, the US is the undisputed leader, which is quite worrying.

Wrongful convictions statistics for 2018 show there were 151 exonerations that year. Another 143 individuals were exonerated in 2019.

3. Since 1989, there have been 375 convicts who were found innocent due to DNA testing.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

Since the introduction of DNA evidence, many wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated.

You might be wondering:

How many cases have been overturned by DNA? 

From 1989 to now, 375

The Innocence Project has worked on roughly half (190) successful cases, Innocence Project statistics reveal.

Looking at the DNA exoneration statistics and the nature of the supposed crimes, 130 exonerees were convicted for murders they didn’t commit.

In 40 cases, amounting to 31%, the witness’s identification was wrong. Moreover, 81 individuals falsely confessed, bringing the percentage of false confessions to 62%, and 17% involved informants.

Out of these 375 people, 21 have served time on death row awaiting execution.

4. 165 actual perpetrators were identified in the 375 DNA exoneration cases. 

(Source: The Innocence Project)

These perpetrators went on to commit numerous other crimes and were later convicted of 154 additional violent crimes, including 83 sexual assaults, 36 murders, and 35 violent crimes of other nature.

5. The first DNA exoneration case was David Vasquez in 1989, convicted of murder in Arlington County.

(Source: Time, The Innocence Project)

David Vasquez had reportedly killed and raped a woman in Virginia. The actual perpetrator, Timothy Spencer, was later identified, convicted, and executed for two other rapes and murders.

Today the term “exonerations by DNA” mostly refers to older cases, as the procedure is done pre-trial. DNA exonerations in old cases average around 20 a year.

6. The 143 people exonerated in 2019 spent a record 1908 years in prison.

(Source: Death Penalty Org)

Over half of them (76) had been convicted of homicide. Wrongful convictions statistics for 2019 report that, among the three exonerated prisoners who were on death row, two had lost over 40 years, while the third one lost 26 years.

Contributing Factors to Failure of Justice

wrongful convictions statistics

What are the 6 causes of wrongful convictions?

According to the National Institute of Justice, the main contributing factors for wrongful convictions in the US fall into the following six categories:

  • Mistaken witness or eyewitness identification
  • False confession 
  • False or misleading forensic evidence, or its misapplication 
  • Perjury or false accusation, informants
  • Official and government misconduct
  • Inadequate legal defense

Let’s find out more about them:

7. 69% of wrongful conviction cases included eyewitness misidentification.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

Misidentification can take many forms, and wrongful conviction statistics reveal 34% of misidentification cases happened during a live police lineup. Another 16% happened during a show-up procedure where a single suspect is shown directly to the victim.

It gets worse:

Up to 52% of misidentifications came from a photo array, while around 7% of errors happened with witnesses looking at mugshot books. Another 5% involved a misidentification happening during a one-on-one photo showing.

Additionally, composite sketches led to 27% of false identification. Finally, in 11% of instances, it was the voice that was not recognized correctly.  

8. 84% of misidentification cases involved a misidentification by a surviving victim.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

There is a false belief that while the traumatic experience is happening, the individual is in such a heightened state of alert that they can remember the details of events with higher accuracy when in fact, it is the opposite. As a result, the vast majority of misidentification cases start with the surviving victim.

Up to 32% of errors in identification happened when more than one person incorrectly identified the same person as a perpetrator of the crime, showing that even multiple witnesses aren’t always reliable. 

Here’s one of the more unusual facts about wrongful convictions

In an effort to remember the details of the crime, some even undergo hypnosis. This practice has led to 2% of misidentifications.

9. Around 18% of identification errors involved the inability to identify the individual in at least one procedure.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

Sometimes, there are multiple misidentifications at various stages of the same case. That number is quite high, especially when you bear in mind that up to 77% of these cases require several procedures.

And that’s not all:

Over half of these erroneous identifications (54%) are classified as in-court misidentification. Another 29% pertain to other procedures, such as victims accidentally recognizing their abusers on the street and bringing it to the attention of the police. 

Last but certainly not least, in 42% cases, a cross-racial misidentification occurs. 

10. According to wrongly convicted statistics, official misconduct is the cause of wrongful convictions in 31% of murder exonerations.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

Official misconduct has been one of the major contributing factors in many wrongful convictions.

In 31% of cases, the police tampered with the witnesses at lineups, applied pressure in one on one meetings, or deliberately showed witnesses the wrong mugshot books.

Given the extent of these practices, it should come as no surprise that up to 57% of people did not identify the perpetrator on the first try.

Another instance of official misconduct is when a person is threatened by the possibility of a death penalty in order to obtain a confession for a crime, which would not be a capital offense.

11. False confessions account for 29% of wrongful convictions, false convictions statistics reveal.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

When we break down the figures, 49% of individuals who confess to crimes they didn’t commit are 21 or younger at the time of their arrest. So, they are often intimidated into a confession by either police or their co-defendants and accomplices.

And that’s not all:

Exoneration statistics reveal that up to 31% of the false confessors are 18 or younger at the time of their arrest. This number is high due to the fear factor and the possibility of a lighter sentence for first offenders and minors.

Finally, around 9% of people who falsely confess had been determined to suffer from mental health issues or have diminished mental capacity.

12. The average number of years served for a crime one didn’t commit is 14.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

In the 37 states where the exonerations happened, the total number of years spent in prison by innocent people was 5,284 or 14 years per person.

The average age of a wrongfully convicted person at the time of the conviction was found to be 26.6, and the average age at the moment of exoneration was 43

13. In 75% of false confession cases, the real perpetrator is found later.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

Out of 102 DNA exonerations where people falsely confessed, the real perpetrator was later caught in 76 cases.

In the meantime, the 38 real criminals had committed an additional 48 crimes, including 25 murders, 14 rapes, and 9 violent crimes, according to data from 2018.

It’s quite remarkable that as many as 137 cases of DNA exonerations saw the actual perps identified via a cold database find.

14. Around 22% of the 104 people who falsely confessed have had exculpatory DNA evidence overlooked, even if available at the time of their trial. 

(Source: The Innocence Project)

2020 DNA exoneration statistics reveal that 83 individuals, making up for 61% of the 137 DNA wrongful conviction murder cases, had to do with false confessions. Furthermore, around 22% had exculpatory evidence that was not taken into account or presented to the court or the defense.

But wait! There’s more:

Out of that number, 33 individuals gave the false confession themselves, and 20 had their co-defendants confess. In 30 cases, both co-defendants falsely testified. The real perpetrator was caught in only 50% of the cases.

15. Wrongful convictions statistics show false accusations are present in 70% of wrongful convictions.

(Source: Death Penalty Org)

False accusations, along with perjury, show up in 101 of the 143 exonerations in 2019. That’s a massive 70.6%! 

What’s more:

It’s the highest percentage when it comes to causes of wrongful convictions in the last year. 

A total of 14 exonerations last year happened due to the misconduct of a single Chicago sergeant who was planting evidence and drugs on the scene.

Perjury or false accusations are more common in murder cases. The percentage stands at 76.3%, compared to 64.2% in non-homicide cases.

16. Withholding exculpatory evidence was present in 75% of wrongful convictions.

(Source: Death Penalty Org)

In 93 of 143 cases, evidence was withheld at some point in the proceedings by the police or the prosecution. It’s present in 75% of homicide exonerations and in around 50% of other crimes not involving homicide.

17. Up to 80% of innocent exonerees in group cases plead guilty.

(Source: Time, Criminal Legal News)

Group exonerations are the result of convictions caused by perjury in drug-related cases.


While only 6% of DNA exonerees pleaded guilty, the percentage of those that admit to crimes they didn’t commit in the group drug-related cases is over 80%.

A total of 15 groups have been exonerated since 1989, with 1840 individuals released from prison.

18. Misdemeanors are the most common category of group convictions with countless innocent convicts, wrongfully convicted statistics reveal.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

Misdemeanors are overcrowding correctional facilities. 

As a result, many will plead guilty to small charges just so they get out of jail. 

Check this out:

In one instance, more than 140 people pled guilty in Texas in 2016 to get a release due to a lab results delay.

How crazy is that?

In any event, the pool of innocent in this category is uncountable. This is especially problematic as misdemeanors are a pipeline to prison life and a sure way to alter a life experience to minorities and the poor. As a matter of fact, it costs $51 million to jail those charged with misdemeanors in the ten Texas counties with the largest population. 

The Demographics of the Exonerees

19. 60% of exonerees are African-American.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

  • 225 individuals or 60% are African-American
  • 117 individuals or 31% are Caucasian
  • 29 individuals or 8% are Hispanic
  • 2 individuals or 1% are Asian-American
  • 1 individual or less than 1% are Native American
  • 1 individual or less than 1% self-identified as Other

20. Blacks make up 13% of the prison population, but around half of wrongfully convicted and exonerated prisoners are Black.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

With only 13% of inmates being Black, you’d expect that the number of wrongful convictions is far less than the shocking 47% in 2016. 

And that’s not all:

It’s over 50% in 2020!

Additionally, up to 67% of DNA exonerations included a Black exoneree. These are convictions where nearly all convicted are minorities without the means to fight the official misconduct or able to afford proper legal representation. 

21. Up to 90% of group exonerations have Black defendants wrongfully accused and convicted.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

Looking at group exonerations from 1995 and 2017, 1,840 people were exonerated. Race is recorded for 1,657 cases. Up to 90% or 1,486 individuals were black defendants involved in group crime. The other 10% were Hispanic. The most common charge was drugs. 

22. Black men account for 12.6% of the prison population and 26.6% of misdemeanor arrests.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

Many of the misdemeanor defendants are convicted on the word of a police officer alone for things such as loitering, jaywalking, trespassing, or resisting arrest. 

Let’s face it:

All it takes is a statement and a subsequent admission of guilt obtained by pressure or intimidation. The percentage of innocent in these instances can’t be measured or recorded. 

FBI statistics show that in 2015, African-Americans made up 12.6% of the US prison population, yet they were listed in 26.6% of misdemeanor arrests. 

The police department in Baltimore came under scrutiny when the forms for  trespassing arrest were found to contain a pre-printed category for “BLACK MALE.”

23. Up to 54.7% of no-crime drug exonerations involve Black exonerees.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

Alleged offenses and made up crimes are among the most prevalent causes of wrongful convictions, especially in the misdemeanor category. However, they’re also applicable to felonies and resisting arrest. 

What’s more:

These convictions without a crime are often racially biased. This is particularly noticeable when we look at the percentage of Black exonerees in drug cases. 

Wrongful convictions statistics show that up to 54.7% of no-crime drug exonerations involve Black exonerees. Whites are the majority in no-crime sexual assault exonerations with 55.4%, murder with 71.7%, and sex abuse of children exonerations with 68.9%.

24. Only 5% of exonerees are women, but 20% of no crime exonerations involve female convicts.

(Source: Criminal Legal News)

No-crime exonerations have something to do with gender, too, as women account for only 5% of all exonerations, yet 20% of no-crime exonerees are female. This percentage is enough to raise the entire no crime category to 10% of all exonerations.

25. Only 15% of murders by Blacks involve white victims, yet 31% of black exonerees were convicted of killing a white person.

(Source: Criminal legal news)

The victim’s race plays a huge part in wrongful convictions. Black men make up 40% of all convicted for murder, but only 50% are exonerated. 

26. Up to 86% of North Carolina’s exoneration cases involve non-whites convicted of the murder of a white person.

(Source: Criminal legal news)

The punishment does not always fit the crime. And in many cases in the US justice system. it doesn’t. But it also fits the race.

The thing is:

In North Carolina, Whites are the victims in 40% of the murder cases, yet 100% of those on death row are convicted of convicted a white person.

Furthermore, up to 86% of the state’s exonerations involve non-white individuals wrongfully convicted of killing a white person. 

27. Two-thirds of death row exonerations happen in the “punitive culture” states and in the South

(Source: Criminal legal news)

This is a somewhat controversial stat.

That being said:

Harsher law policies often see more racially driven convictions, which leads to more wrongful convictions. Fortunately, it’s also led to more exonerations in recent years. Up to 75% of death row exonerations happen in the South.

28. Black men spend three years more on average waiting for exoneration than white men.

(Source: Criminal legal news)

The racial divide is visible even in the time that one has to wait to be exonerated. For an innocent black man convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, the average wait time is 14.2 years, while white males convicted of the same crime get exonerated after 11.2 years.

The situation is similar on death row, wrongful convictions statistics show, as black men spend an average of 16 years awaiting execution while white males spend 12 years on death row before being exonerated.

When it comes to sexual assault, black men spend 13.3 years in prison, while white men spend 8.9 years on average

Key takeaway:

[bctt tweet=”Up to 28% of life sentences are given to black men, while that percentage is 17% for white men.” via=”no”]

Exonerations by State

29. California witnessed seven exonerations in 2019.

(Source: The Innocence Project)

Half of these resulted from perjury or false accusations, in two cases leading to life without parole sentences.


According to the National Registry of Exonerationsannual report for 2019, 143 people were exonerated in the United States. As many as 34 states saw exonerations, and these states have the highest exoneration rates. 

Check out the numbers:

  • Illinois exonerated 30 individuals, with 14 of those as the result of a drug-related Chicago police scandal in which the suspects were planted evidence by a group led by Police Sgt. Ronald Watts.
  • Pennsylvania exonerated 15 people and still doesn’t offer compensation.
  • Texas also saw 15 exonerations, with some cases where convictions were based on long-contested bitemark evidence, which now constitutes as use of unreliable forensics.
  • New York had 11 exonerations.
  • Michigan now has an established Conviction Integrity Unit and exonerated nine people in 2019.
  • California witnessed seven exonerations in 2019, with half caused by perjury or false accusations, in two cases leading to life without parole sentences.
  • Florida exonerated six people in 2019
  • Six people were exonerated in Maryland.

At least 18 individuals executed in the United States since 1989 had strong evidence of innocence.

Here’s the $64,000 question:

30. What states compensate for wrongful imprisonment?

(Source: The Innocence Project)

Currently, 33 states and the Federal Government compensate for wrongful convictions in some way. The 17 states that don’t offer any compensation following wrongful conviction and imprisonment are: 

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Wyoming

So far, 268 DNA exonerees have been compensated for the time they spent behind the bars. 

Another curious question is:

31. How many people have been exonerated from death row?

(Source: Death Penalty org, LA Times, The Innocence Project)

A total of 200 people have been exonerated in 11 states while awaiting execution. Wrongful convictions statistics in the United States record that out of these, 20 have been exonerated by DNA analyses. They served 200 years on death row and a total of 229 years behind bars. 

Let’s have a quick look at who they are:

  • Kirk Bloodsworth spent eight years in total and two years on death row for a murder and rape he wasn’t guilty of before his exoneration in 1993.
  • Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez spent over 10 years awaiting execution in Illinois for murder until DNA evidence proved their innocence in 1995.
  • Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams were convicted for murder in 1978. Jimerson was exonerated in 1995, while Williams spent over 17 years waiting for execution until he was exonerated and released in 1996.
  • Robert Miller was convicted of rape and murder he did not commit and spent nine years on death row in Oklahoma. He was exonerated by DNA testing in 1998.
  • Ron Williamson was exonerated after a decade on Oklahoma’s death row thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project in 1999. His co-defendant, Dennis Fritz, spent 11 years in prison after being convicted to life without parole. Both were freed by DNA evidence.
  • Ronald Jones served 10 years on Illinois death row for a murder and rape before being exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project in 1999.
  • Earl Washington was exonerated after falsely confessing to a 1982 murder he wasn’t guilty of. Nine days before his execution he received a stay of execution and was freed after 17 years in prison in 2000.
  • Frank Lee Smith was exonerated 11 months after his death of cancer in a Florida prison. He died on death row after spending 14 years awaiting execution for a murder and rape he didn’t commit.
  • Charles Irvin Fain spent over 17 years in Idaho. He was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2001.
  • Ray Krone spent 10 years in prison in Arizona, with four years on death row until exoneration in 2002.
  • Nicholas Yarris spent 21 years in a Pennsylvania prison before his release in 2003.
  • Ryan Matthews served five years on death row in Louisiana. He was exonerated in 2004 by DNA testing. The co-defendant in this case, Travis Hayes, served eight years after being sentenced to life in prison before his release in 2007.
  • Curtis McCarty spent a total of 21 years incarcerated in Oklahoma, with 18 of those years on death row. Due to forensic errors and official misconduct, he was convicted two times and sentenced to death three times before his final exoneration in 2007.
  • Kennedy Brewer spent 15 years in total and 7 on death row before being released in 2018.
  • Michael Blair was incarcerated for 13 years and awaited execution for a murder he didn’t commit until 2008.
  • Damon Thibodeaux was exonerated in 2012 after 15 years behind bars for the murder of his cousin to which he falsely confessed under the threat of the death penalty.

Wrongful Convictions Statistics Around the World 

32. At least 4 out of 100 prisoners on death row are likely innocent. Only two on average get exonerated before their death.

(Source: The World)

For every ten countries that don’t carry out the death penalty anymore, one does. Five countries carry out the majority of the executions, and those countries are: 

  • Saudi Arabia 
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • China
  • US

The number of countries using the death penalty has been reduced by half since 1995, when 41 countries still carried out capital punishment. In 2014, that number was 22.

A total of 607 legal executions were carried out in 2013, excluding China with an unknown number kept as a state secret. 

33. Which country has the most wrongful convictions? 

(Source: BBC, NY Times, Death Penalty Org, The World, NWorld)

The countries with the most incarcerated are the United States, China, Brazil, and Russia, prisoner facts reveal. So, these four countries are likely to have the most innocent people convicted and imprisoned. 

But there’s more:

The conviction rate in China is an astonishing 99.9%, which is a guarantee of a high percentage of innocent individuals convicted. This means virtually everyone accused is convicted. The real number of innocents will never be revealed along with the executions numbers. Still, the number of overturned convictions was 1774 in 2019

Russia and Japan both have over 99% conviction rates and are under scrutiny for having low acquittal and overturn rates.

Brazil leads in the number of long pre-trial prison time, with 70% of incarcerated defendants awaiting trial serving time for prolonged periods of time.

Key takeaway:

[bctt tweet=”The United States has the highest amount of overturned convictions and exonerations.” via=”no”]

The Bottom Line

Wrong convictions stats are desperately clear: 

Nothing can bring a life back or the dignity and humanity lost after a wrongful conviction.

While some states offer compensation, it’s not nearly enough to remedy the damage done to the convicted, their families, and the victims of the original crime.

Not to mention the numerous subsequent criminal acts committed by the real perpetrators who are still free while innocent people serve time.

Wrongful convictions statistics draw a clear picture of where the problem areas are and what we can do to minimize the number of these incidents. Improving eyewitness identification procedures is the first that comes to mind, followed by making DNA testing easier and more accessible. 

Preservation of evidence plays a crucial role as well as ensuring the forensic science is held to a high enough standard.

To minimize official misconduct, all interrogations need to be recorded and filed. 

Finally, an adequate compensation policy must be in place when a wrongful conviction occurs. 

Without one, many will lose their future years in addition to the ones they’ve already lost unjustifiably confined behind bars.


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