On Aug. 8, 1993, 23-year-old Wayne Ballard pulled up to a stop at the intersection of 2nd Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest. Another car pulled up to the driver’s side of Ballard’s car and a gunman fired several shots into Ballard’s car. Ballard was fatally shot in the head.
Almost immediately, police suspected that 17-year-old Gary Gathers was involved in the shooting. Ballard had previously told police that he saw Gathers’ brother, Gregory, fatally shoot Carlton Gillis on June 14, 1993, and police believed that Gathers was retaliating.
A jury convicted Gathers and Keith Mitchell of first-degree murder, and each was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison. Appeals for a new trial were denied, even though witnesses placed Gathers away from the scene and named others as the admitted shooters.
But after a witness who had identified Gathers as the gunman and Mitchell as the driver admitted falsely implicating them because he was angry about the murders of Gillis and Ballard, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and ordered a new trial in 2014, and the prosecution ultimately dismissed the charges a year later.
The case of Gathers and Mitchell — two black men — underscores that black people convicted of murder or sexual assault are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be later found innocent of the crimes, according to a review of nearly 2,000 exonerations nationwide over almost three decades.
Innocent blacks also had to wait disproportionately longer for their names to be cleared than innocent whites, found the review, released this month by the National Registry of Exonerations.
Blacks wrongfully convicted of murder, for example, spent an average of three more years in prison before being released than whites who were cleared. Further, while African-Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise a whopping 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations in the registry.
“It’s no surprise that in this area, as in almost any other that has to do with criminal justice in the United States, race is the big factor,” Samuel R. Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and a senior editor of the registry, told the New York Times.
The registry found that only about 15 percent of all murders committed by black people involve white victims, yet 31 percent of blacks eventually cleared of murder convictions were initially convicted of killing white people, they found.
Misconduct, such as hiding evidence, tampering with witnesses or perjury, may also have contributed to the racial disparity.
The authors found such wrongdoing was present in 76 percent of cases in which black murder defendants were wrongfully convicted, but just 63 percent of cases in which white defendants were exonerated.
The report’s authors found similar patterns for sexual assault, with 59 percent of all exonerations going to black defendants, compared with 34 percent for white defendants.
Again, the authors concluded that racial bias may contribute to the disparity.
Previous research has found that white Americans are more likely to misidentify black people for one another than white people, a phenomenon they said may play a role in eyewitness misidentification, the Times reported.
The latest registry found eyewitness errors in 79 percent of sexual assault cases involving wrongfully convicted black defendants, compared with 51 percent in cases with exonerated white defendants.
In a separate report, the registry said it counted at least 166 exonerations last year in the United States, a record.
Of those, 54 defendants were wrongfully convicted of homicides, 24 of sexual assaults and 15 of other violent crimes. At least 70 of the exonerations involved official misconduct.
The registry data is based on a variety of sources, including nonprofit organizations that fight for the wrongfully convicted, reviews conducted by prosecutors’ offices and studies conducted by the registry’s researchers. Still, Gross said, there may be many that the group has missed.
“There are probably more exonerations that we don’t know about than there are that we do know about,” he said.