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Record number of overturned convictions in 2015

California readers might find it interesting that a record number of people were freed from American prisons in 2015 after they were exonerated of crimes they did not commit. According to a report issued on Feb. 3 by the University of Michigan Law School's National Registry of Exonerations, 149 people were cleared of their crimes last year after spending an average of 15 years behind bars.

The exonerated individuals included 54 people convicted of murder and 47 convicted of drug crimes. Five of the freed inmates were on death row. More than two-thirds of those who had homicide convictions overturned were minorities, and 27 of those freed, many of whom were children or mentally impaired individuals, falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit.

The concept of revisiting past convictions by prosecutors is relatively new. The first unit designed to investigate questionable convictions was established in California in 2002. The Registry of Exonerations report noted that the hit Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer" has helped raise public awareness about wrongful convictions in the U.S. However, one difficulty in examining past cases is that only 6 percent of convictions have evidence tested for trial. The vast majority of cases are settled through plea bargains. This means that most evidence is never scrutinized in the first place.

Those facing criminal charges in California have the right to a vigorous criminal defense. An attorney could help protect his or her client's rights during police questioning and can also carefully review evidence for key details that could lead to a reduction or dismissal of charges. In some cases, legal counsel may recommend working out a plea deal with prosecutors that mitigates the most serious charges and penalties in exchange for a defendant's guilty plea.

Source: NBC News, "Jailed but Innocent: Record Number of People Exonerated in 2015," Ari Melber, Feb. 3, 2016

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