Criminal Justice

Philadelphia is No. 2 in exonerations nationwide

The city accounted for nearly 10% of U.S. exonerations in 2023

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, city officials and advocates speak at a press conference

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, city officials and advocates speak at a press conference Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council

Nearly one in every 10 exonerations that took place in the United States in 2023 occurred in Philadelphia, according to a new report.

The National Registry of Exonerations’ 2023 Annual Report revealed that 153 exonerations occurred nationwide in 2023. Sixteen of those exonerations were in Pennsylvania, placing the commonwealth fourth nationally behind Illinois, Texas and New York. 

All but one of the 16 Pennsylvania exonerations – all of which were for murder convictions – are from Philadelphia, with eight of those cases involving post-conviction work by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. 

Criminal justice advocates and public defenders say that the Philadelphia numbers can be attributed to – at least in part – to the focus that Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s administration has put on making the CIU work. 

“The Conviction Integrity Unit was established by his predecessor, Seth Williams, but it was more of ceremonial performance in practice,” Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, told City & State. “‘The Conviction Protection Unit’ – that’s what we called it on the inside.” 

Typically, an exoneration occurs when a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared after new evidence of their innocence becomes available. A person’s case must be reexamined post-conviction and recommended for review, resulting in the charges getting dismissed or the exoneree getting declared factually innocent, pardoned or acquitted. 

According to the National Registry, roughly 3,500 exonerations have taken place in the United States since 1989, with 77 exonerations in Philadelphia since records began being kept in 1990 – 47 of those having taken place since Krasner took office in 2018. One of the more recent cases – that of C.J. Rice – made national headlines after all charges against Rice for a 2011 shooting were dropped and he was able to walk free after serving 12 years for a wrongful conviction. Rice’s 2013 conviction was reexamined by the district attorney’s office – a move that’s becoming more common as CIUs come online in localities and states across the country. 

“We have implemented a system of what some people call ‘open-file discovery’ in the CIU and what has now happened is that the other post-conviction units in the office now followed suit, which is in part why you’re seeing exonerations from other units,” Carrie Wood, assistant supervisor of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s CIU, told City & State. 

Open-file discovery requires that the defense in a case is provided with all information known to the prosecution – including reports from law enforcement, witness statements and evidence from outside agencies such as forensic labs.

Wood estimated that the CIU currently has about 300 cases submitted by attorneys that have yet to be assigned to an assistant district attorney and about 800 more cases submitted by individuals without attorneys that have yet to be reviewed. Wood said seven ADAs are working in her unit, including herself, but she would like to get the unit back up to pre-pandemic staffing when they had 10 ADAs on staff. 

Nilam Sanghvi, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said the recent uptick in exonerations is the result of “a few things coming together,” including the renewed focus on reexamining cases, as well as a realization that misconduct and an incentive to sentence an individual were often connected to murder cases in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“There was a lot of pressure to clear cases and there may have been a rush to judgment and focus on getting someone in jail (even if) that’s not necessarily the right person” in Philadelphia during that period, Sanghvi told City & State. “We are lucky here in Philadelphia to have a very robust CIU and an office that is willing to finally provide us those police files and trial files. So we’re now finally seeing the information that should have been disclosed to our clients decades ago.”

Sanghvi said the DAO’s post-conviction work and willingness to share previous case files has “shown us how important the access to information is.” 

Maurice Possley, a senior researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations, said CIUs are increasingly open to examining case files as more evidence of misconduct by detectives, prosecutors and others comes to light.

“It isn’t just allowing people to have access; it’s the creation of a CIU that actually was proactive and started pulling strings and threads on cases, particularly if there was a bad detective,” Possley said. “It helps, I think, the public perception of what prosecutors do, and showing that they’re willing to be open to these sorts of cases is a way of buttressing public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system.”

The National Registry’s 2022 report found that Black Americans are seven times more likely than white people to be falsely convicted of serious crimes and spend more time in prison before exoneration. Holbrook said that while the exoneration numbers in Philadelphia are impressive, there is still a lot of work to do to correct the wrongdoings that led to the disproportionately high rates of convictions and sentences people of color have experienced. 

“I don’t know if there’s a political will in Philadelphia to go back and reopen the amount of harm that the office did to Black and brown Philadelphians during the tenure of Lynne Abraham and Seth Williams because it’s so massive,” Holbrook said. “I applaud Krasner for what he’s doing, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”