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Study Estimates Alarming Wrongful Conviction Rate on Death Row

Posted on in Criminal Law

Since the late 1990s, the number of death sentences in the United States has been on the decline. In each of the last three years, however, nearly 80 individuals have been sentenced to death in the United States. Recent numbers seem to be holding steady despite the fact that 18 states, including Illinois and the District of Columbia, no longer utilize the death penalty.

Opponents of capital punishment have long maintained that the one of the dangers inherent to state-sanctioned execution is the possibility of condemning an innocent person. Recent cases in which decade-old convictions have been overturned based on new evidence or information seem to support the idea that, despite a lengthy appeals process, a conviction may have been flawed. Earlier this year, a team of a researchers led by Dr. Samuel Gross, professor of law at the University of Michigan, sought to quantify the rate at which death row inmates may have been falsely convicted.

Dr. Gross’s study noted a 2006 opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in which Justice Scalia made reference to an error rate in American felony convictions of 0.027 percent.  While such a low rate of error would be, indeed, good news, Gross considers the method which produced the estimate to be silly since it compared exonerations in a small number of murder and rape cases to all felony convictions including non-violent and white-collar crimes.

The research team, instead, focused on death sentence convictions and exonerations specifically related to those same cases. The study was structured as a survival analysis, which is often used to evaluate the efficacy of a medical treatment. Such an approach allowed the team to consider additional variables and more in-depth probabilities. Based on his team’s evaluation of nearly 7,500 death penalty cases, Dr. Gross estimated that 4.1 percent of convictions resulting in a death sentence are wrongful convictions. This is an alarming number, especially when understood in context. Specifically, if death row convictions are that wrong so frequently, it is very likely that wrongful convictions occur even more often in cases with less serious consequences.

Death penalty cases are highly scrutinized, by both the legal system and often the media. Multiple levels of appeals, news coverage, and attention from interest groups create the expectation of leaving no stone unturned. The added scrutiny and the fear of executing an innocent person often lead to one of two outcomes: exoneration, or a commutation of the sentence to life in prison. The study points out, however, that once the threat of execution is removed, the interest in exonerating a potentially innocent person rapidly diminishes. Among all convicted defendants, the team hypothesized that those on death row maintained the highest probability of being exonerated.

Less than half of all capital murder convictions result in death sentences throughout the United States. Understandably, jurors are concerned about sending an innocent person to die, and are therefore more likely to return a life sentence when lingering doubts remain regarding the defendant’s guilt. Combined with the attention that death row cases already receive, this means an innocent person convicted of capital murder is not likely to be executed. Rather, they are sentenced, or resentenced to prison for life, and then forgotten.

While the death penalty is no longer an option in Illinois, wrongful convictions are still a possibility. If you or someone you love has been accused or wrongfully convicted of a crime, you need a lawyer who will fight for you. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in Illinois for a consultation today.
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