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A Record Number of Inmates were Exonerated Last Year for Crimes They Didn’t Commit

Nicole Harris

Nicole Harris

Nicole Harris’ boyfriend woke up from a nap in 2005 and found her 4-year-old son, Jaquari, with an elastic band from a bed sheet wrapped around his throat. Attempts to resuscitate the boy failed; he died from asphyxiation.

After Chicago police interrogated Harris, she gave a videotaped confession saying that she had choked her son with the elastic band because he wouldn’t stop crying. A jury convicted Harris of first-degree murder, and she received a 30-year sentence.

The only problem was that she didn’t do it. Jaquari likely got tangled in the elastic band while playing Spiderman with his 5-year-old brother, Diante.

She confessed after an intense 27 hours of police questioning. According to Harris, officers threatened her, called her names, pushed her, withheld food and water, and denied her use of the bathroom.

Perhaps investigators should have considered an alternative explanation for the tragedy. Diante had told them that his brother liked to pretend he was Spiderman by wrapping sheets around his neck and jumping off the bed. But the judge in Harris’ trial ruled that the little boy who still believed in Santa Claus was unfit to testify.

More than seven years after she was imprisoned for her son’s accidental death, Harris walked free when a federal appeals court vacated her sentence. “I just want to get home to my son,” she said last year to TV station WLS. “I’m just ready to get on with my life and hold my son.”

After the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the prosecutor’s office decided not to seek a retrial. In June 2013, the prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges against Harris, and last month a judge granted her a “certificate of innocence.”

Harris was not alone in walking free last year. In 2013, a record number of inmates were exonerated for serious crimes they didn’t commit, according to a report released by the National Registry of Exonerations.

The registry is a collaboration between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. At the time of its creation two years ago, researchers had found 873 individuals exonerated since 1989. The database now tallies about 1,300 wrongful convictions.

For 2013, researchers found 87 cases in which a convicted person was cleared of murder, rape or other serious offense — exceeding the 81 cases they had found in 2009.

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