A Lesson from the Exonerated  

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Roger Aradi, CFE, ACFE Communications Manager
Ryan Gregory, Risk Analyst, Cinder Staffing

More than 17,895 years lost.

That’s how much prison time innocent people served before subsequently being exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.* The mission of the registry is “to provide comprehensive information on exonerations of innocent criminal defendants in order to prevent future false convictions by learning from past errors.” Just as we, as anti-fraud professionals, learn to fight fraud by studying fraudsters, are there lessons to be learned from cases where innocents have been convicted of fraud?

Fraud and tax evasion cases make up only 0.02 percent of cases in the registry. This gives us 36 cases of individuals convicted of fraud or tax evasion but later exonerated on some or all charges. In 80 percent of these cases, official misconduct or perjury/false accusations were factors that led to defendants ultimately winning their appeals.

According to the Farlex online legal dictionary, official misconduct is defined as “improper and/or illegal acts by a public official which violate his/her duty to follow the law and act on behalf of the public good.” According to the registry’s own glossary, perjury/false accusation takes place when “A person other than the exoneree committed perjury by making a false statement under oath that incriminated the exoneree in the crime for which the exoneree was later exonerated, or made a similar unsworn statement that would have been perjury if made under oath.”

In other words, in 80% of the cases under consideration, those building/prosecuting the case violated the law or contradicted the truth. A few examples are noted in these quotes from courts involved in these cases:

  • “had the government complied with its…..obligations and disclosed SEC transcripts.”
  • “prosecution has presented insufficient evidence.”
  • “it was discovered that prosecutors failed to disclose.”

These cases provide dramatic examples of why integrity and objectivity are emphasized so strongly in the CFE Code of Professional Standards. The very first standard of conduct states, “Certified Fraud Examiners shall conduct themselves with integrity, knowing that public trust is founded on integrity. CFEs shall not sacrifice integrity to serve the client, their employer or the public interest.” How many of the 36 exonerations would never have resulted in convictions in the first place had the investigators and prosecutors held themselves to this standard?

Perhaps that is the lesson to be derived from the exonerated: professional standards may feel like constraints sometimes, but they serve a vital purpose, and to violate them has a real human cost. Let us aspire to a level of professionalism that prevents any innocents from losing even one year of their life, much less nearly 18,000.

* As of June 29, 2017.