Detectives coercing false confessions from suspects. Prosecutors illegally withholding evidence from defendants. Police conducting shoddy or secret investigations of alternate theories and quietly burying those records in the case file.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has helped overturn 14 homicide convictions in the last 2½ years, and prosecutors in nearly every instance have cited such official misconduct when seeking to throw a case out.
On Tuesday, the National Registry of Exonerations released a report examining 2,400 overturned convictions across the country over the last 30 years, finding that 54% of those cases were overturned due to intentional or negligent mistakes by police or prosecutors.
The problem was worse among overturned murder cases, researchers found: 72% of all exonerations for murder since 1989 have involved misconduct by police, prosecutors, or both, and 93 people whose cases were overturned due to official misconduct had been sentenced to death.
The report sheds new light on an issue that has long attracted attention in the criminal justice system, and comes amid the country’s reckoning with systemic racism and law enforcement’s role in that — a moment sparked by several police killings of Black people across the country this summer.
The contours of those debates, which have become part of this year’s presidential election, have long coursed through Philadelphia and intensified after Krasner took office in 2018. The outspoken former defense attorney pledged to transform the prosecutor’s office, and soon after taking office expanded the Conviction Integrity Unit, dedicated to reviewing problematic convictions.
Patricia Cummings, head of that unit, said she believes the issues leading to wrongful convictions are more pronounced in Philadelphia than elsewhere. Twelve of the 14 exonerations she has presided over have involved official misconduct, she said, and her staff regularly encounters cases almost entirely reliant on faulty confessions or unreliable eyewitness testimony. Many also feature instances in which police or prosecutors did not disclose evidence as required by law, she said.
There are many consequences to such misconduct. Ketra Veasy is experiencing some of them firsthand.
Her brother, Willie, was exonerated last year with help from Krasner’s office. In court documents supporting his release from prison, prosecutors said they had come to believe that the confession he gave to detectives Martin Devlin and Paul Worrell had been coerced.
They also said they were investigating whether Devlin and Worrell had coerced false statements in other cases. Devlin and Worrell, who have retired from the Philadelphia Police Department, have denied wrongdoing.
Veasy was released from prison in October, and celebrated his exoneration outside the Criminal Justice Center before enjoying a meal with his family and attorneys at McCormick & Schmick’s in Center City.
But Ketra Veasy says her brother has since grown distant — struggling to adjust to life outside of prison after 27 years behind bars. He can be short-tempered, she said, and dismissive of efforts to help him become accustomed to his new reality.
“He’s like two totally different people," Veasy said.
Sonja Jamison, a close family friend, said the experience of the wrongful conviction changed the course of his life as well as his family’s. Rather than serving as an ending, she said, his exoneration was simply the beginning of a new set of challenges.
“You can’t just push 27 years out and be like, ‘I’m fine,’ ” she said. “You’re not.”
Marissa Bluestine, who previously served as an attorney for Veasy, and now assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said that wrongful convictions make up a small proportion of the overall criminal caseload, and that the vast majority of cases that pass through the criminal justice system are handled by police and prosecutors dedicated to getting them right.
The District Attorney’s Office said the Conviction Integrity Unit has rejected about 350 cases from defendants seeking to have their cases overturned. An additional 96 cases are currently being investigated, a spokesperson said, while thousands more need to be processed or reviewed.
Still, Bluestine said the errors that have become commonplace among overturned cases are systemic: A lack of training, a lack of supervision, and a lack of accountability, particularly for prosecutors, who cannot be sued in civil court for wrongdoing.
“There’s a whole system failure," Bluestine said. "And unless you start to acknowledge that these cases involve system failures, we’re not going to fix it.”
The National Registry of Exoneration’s report said some systemic issues appear to have improved in recent years. Police using violence or other forms of misconduct in interrogations “has dropped dramatically in the past 16 years,” it said.
In Philadelphia, police began videotaping interviews of suspects in 2014, as well as reminding witnesses being interviewed that they could leave at any time. The clearance rate — the proportion of cases considered solved — subsequently plummeted.
The report echoed Bluestine’s contention that all future solutions must continue to address policies and practices in order to safeguard against mistakes, whether inadvertent, reckless, or even intentional.
“If these systemic problems are corrected, misconduct is less likely to occur — and when it does happen, more likely to be counteracted before innocent people are condemned,” the report said.