The more serious the crime and the punishment, the more likely it is that police and prosecutors behaved improperly or illegally, says Gross, who also founded the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks wrongful convictions. Official misconduct contributed to 72 percent of cases in which the person was wrongfully convicted of murder, compared with 32 percent of nonviolent crimes. “There’s more at stake, and they care more about getting a conviction,” he says. “It’s one thing to let a drug dealer off, but it’s another thing to let a murderer off. The correct and virtuous impulse to get a conviction can lead people to cut corners for what they believe is getting the right result.”
“There’s a ton of pressure to close those kinds of crimes,” agrees Brendan Cox, a retired police chief in Albany, New York. Police want to bring closure to the victim’s family and security to the community, by taking a killer off the streets. This creates a paradox. “For the police, we are sworn to uphold the Constitution, so it’s our job to actually ensure people’s rights,” he says. “But it’s then also our job to try to make sure that we bring somebody to justice. And some of the things that we’re supposed to do, that we absolutely should do, that we must do, fly in the face of getting that justice sometimes.”
One particular form of misconduct has led to more bad convictions than any other: concealing exculpatory evidence. Although prosecutors have largely been blamed for such strategic omissions, police also hid evidence, which then contributed to the convictions of 172 innocent people. One of them was Richard Miles.
On May 16, 1994, witnesses at a Texaco station in Dallas saw a Black man shoot two men sitting in a car, killing one and wounding the other. Within moments, police picked up 19-year-old Miles, walking home after spending the evening with friends. One witness thought he looked like the shooter; five others said there was no resemblance. Police corroborated Miles’s alibi; even so, he was charged with murder and attempted murder.
“The only thing that I can think of is the police wanted to close out a case, and they picked out the first Black male they saw,” Miles told me. “They knew that they would be able to fit this person into a case. And that’s what they did.”
Miles was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. A dozen years later, Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit group that reinvestigates questionable convictions, took up his case and found that police had suppressed key evidence: A woman had told police that her ex-boyfriend had confessed to the murder, and another person had sworn that a different man, not Miles, was the shooter.
“What did they do with that information?” asks Jim McCloskey, the founder of Centurion and the co-author of When Truth Is All You Have, his memoir of the innocence movement. “They buried it. They didn’t give it to the DA, and they certainly didn’t give it to the defense. They did no investigation of that information whatsoever. That is clear misconduct and suppression of evidence leading to another likely suspect.”