A new national accounting of exonerations puts Wisconsin among the top states in convicting innocent defendants of serious crimes. But that ranking tells only part of the story, a state expert in wrongful convictions said.
The study released earlier this month tallied at least 2,000 exonerations nationwide, including 21 in Wisconsin since 1989 when DNA testing came into use.
The National Registry of Exonerations, compiled by University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University, found that Wisconsin's rate of wrongful convictions was 30 percent higher than the national average. That rate put Wisconsin in eighth place among states.
But Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said one of the factors leading to the higher rate is the existence of the Innocence Project, which operates out of UW-Madison Law School.
"When you look, you find them (wrongful convictions)," Findley said. "When you don't look, you don't find them."
Illinois — which has an active innocence project at the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University — had the highest rate, with 2.8 times the national average of exonerations. The report lists 101 exonerations in Illinois over the past 23 years.
The next highest number of wrongful convictions was in New York, home to the national Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, with 88.
And the third highest was 84 exonerations in Texas, where Findley noted that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has been proactive in seeking out and remedying such cases.
The report released in conjunction with the new registry tallies 873 individuals freed after their convictions were overturned. In addition, the report documents mass exonerations of at least 1,170 people as the result of police scandals, primarily involving officers who planted drugs, guns or gave false testimony to frame defendants.
Among the exonerees in the registry is Audrey Edmunds, 51, who spent nearly 12 years in prison after she was convicted in Dane County Circuit Court in the death of a 7-month-old girl at her home day care. Edmunds, of Waunakee, was released in 2008 after the Wisconsin Innocence Project presented medical evidence not available when she was convicted in 1996 that raised serious doubts about the cause of Natalie Beard's death.
Edmunds said she is grateful for the attention that has been focused on wrongful convictions, particularly those involving so-called "shaken-baby syndrome." That diagnosis has come under increasing scrutiny from experts and others who say the telltale symptoms of shaken-baby syndrome also can be seen in children who die from natural causes or old injuries.
Now living in Lakeville, Minn., Edmunds said she relishes the time with her three daughters after spending most of their growing-up years in prison. Last week she helped her middle daughter, Allie, get ready for her high school prom.
"It's just great that more and more people are recognizing the wrongfully convicted," she said.
Findley said Wisconsin's exoneration rate, although high, does not mean defendants are worse off here. He noted that unlike in some states, Wisconsin defendants can ask for post-conviction DNA testing, even if a prosecutor opposes it. That factor also could lead to higher exoneration rates, he said.
"I doubt that (high rate) is a reflection that our criminal justice system is that much worse than other jurisdictions," Findley said. "In some respects, it's better. But we do have our share of wrongful convictions."