In 2011, after Francisco Carrillo Jr. had spent 20 years in prison for a fatal drive-by shooting in Los Angeles County that he didn't commit, his conviction was overturned.
News reports pointed in large part to the reliability of the witnesses — all of whom eventually recanted their identification of Carrillo, who was 16 at the time of the killing and had consistently maintained his innocence, or were deemed to have been unable to properly see the shooter.
Carrillo's experience is one of 2,000 such cases in the National Registry of Exonerations, an online database of wrongful convictions that have been overturned dating to 1989.
The registry is now being housed at UC Irvine, where it will become a resource for faculty and students studying the criminal justice system. UCI was selected because of its concentration of faculty in the area of wrongful convictions.
"This university can really provide muscle to what is a still-developing group of cases," said Maurice Possley, senior researcher for the registry, which was created in 2012 as a joint project between the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
"I tend to think this database can be one of the most influential factors for reform and change in the criminal justice system in many years."
The purpose of the registry, explained Possley, is to collect data on the causes of wrongful convictions — which typically include mistaken witness identification, false confession, official misconduct, false or misleading forensic evidence, false accusation and inadequate legal defense — in order to prevent them in the future.
Such a large bank of empirical data, he explained, offers support to researchers, activists and legislators who are seeking change to the criminal justice system.
A March analysis of the registry's data, for example, found that African Americans make up "a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated." Innocent black defendants are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent whites, the report found, and murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include police misconduct.
While the registry has more than 2,000 cases on file, Possley said this number is only "scratching the surface" of the total number of wrongful convictions, given the registry's own strict criteria of exoneration and the difficulty in finding these cases.
"We don't know how many cases there are," he said. "We don't know how representational it is of the system. But the more we look, the more we find."
Simon Cole, director of the registry and UC Irvine's Newkirk Center for Science and Society, said the registry is being used for research across the university, from the law school to literary journalism. In addition, Cole and Possley are teaching an undergraduate course, "Miscarriages of Justice," which involves showing students how to use the registry.
"I've taught that class for a long time, and before we used the registry I would get the response, 'I didn't know any of this stuff. I didn't know that our justice system had these issues. I thought it worked perfectly,' " said Cole. "I was always surprised at the number of students for whom this was totally new to them."
Added Possley, a former journalist who lives in Laguna Beach: "It gives them an appreciation of the work that goes into undoing a wrongful conviction. It's part of the fabric of the criminal justice system that you don't normally get exposed to."
Carrillo, who now serves on the registry board, said the database helps people like him understand that they are not alone.
"It's a place where you can go to realize your case isn't unique," he said. "For those who need the extra layer of research, it's great that it's there, versus, 'Just take my word for it that I'm innocent.' "
But perhaps even more important, said Carrillo, who received a settlement of millions last July, is its potential for educating the public — our jury pool.
"In wrongful convictions, the jury at some point was misled, either by false testimony or bad evidence," he said. "It's the unspoken piece that the jurors — the public — are the ones who are ultimately used to convict someone unjustly because they were misled.
"When you're selected, you're officially deputized to be part of the system, and the jury can't take the nonchalant position of, 'The professionals know what they're doing, we're just here.' No, you're a key part of this. You have to think about it, and if you don't ask, if you don't speak up if there's a doubt, someone's life could be ruined."