Study: One Out of Twenty Five Death Row Inmates Is Innocent

"i've seen them come and go and i've seen them die, and long ago I stopped asking why"CA CorrectionsHow many American prisoners have been wrongfully convicted of the crimes they're serving time for? Answering that question would help measure the effectiveness the criminal justice system.

Researchers of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tried to get to this answer by reviewing death penalty cases. Because of the life-or-death stakes involved, a lot more effort is exerted to exonerate death row inmates than any other cohort of inmate.

In fact, according to the research, 1.7 percent of all death row inmates are eventually exonerated. It's a higher number than the one quoted by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in Kansas v. Marsh, a case about the death penalty. He claimed the error rate was .027 percent. The researchers dismissed that number; they say it was arrived at by extending the exoneration rate of a small subgroup of inmates (capital cases) to the wider American prison population.

Instead, the researchers used the exoneration rate on death row and extended it to inmates whose capital punishment is replaced by life imprisonment, at which point efforts to exonerate them largely subside. Based on that idea, they estimate 4.1 percent, or one in 25, of all death row inmates are innocent, meaning that they would be exonerated if they remained on death row.

In that context, laws like Florida's recently enacted "Timely Justice Act," which aims to shorten the average time between a sentence of death and the execution, only serve to increase the likelihood an innocent person is executed by cutting the amount of time the inmate has to use the courts to argue for his freedom. It's a bugaboo of capital punishment aficionados, this time death row inmates spend trying not to be killed instead of actually being killed. The entire appeals process associated with death row drives the cost of the death penalty well above the cost of imprisoning someone for life. This week's new study shows the importance of giving death row inmates adequate time to mount an appeal. It also calls into question efforts inmates may make to get off death row but remain in prison, as their chances of being successfully exonerated drop precipitously once their life isn't at stake.

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  • Almanian!||

    One out of twenty five? That's a rate good enough for government work. Carry on.

    /Law and Order tard

  • Agammamon||

    Well, the FBI tolerates a 1 in *5* false positive rate for their new facial recognition software.

    A 1 in 25 false positive for death row is, like, five times better than that!

  • Jordan||

    They knew the risk when they signed the social contract.

    /derp

  • ||

    This is why we need an enthusiastic consent standard.

  • kinnath||

    I've never seen a D24 before. So we'll just make them roll a D20 for their saving throw I suppose. A couple of guilty bastards will squeek through that way, but I guess it's OK.

  • sarcasmic||

    Dork.

  • kinnath||

    Nerd.

  • LiveFreeOrDiet||

    D12, double the score, and a coin toss, heads +0, tails -1. (D12x2+CT-1)
    Personally I would make that D%/4, round up.
    I first played AD&D the Friday before Christmas of 1977. Contrary to stereotype, there were two girls in the group.

  • Damned Fool||

    But think of the poor prosecutors trying to make a name for themselves?

  • Damned Fool||

    *themselves!

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Roll a d12 and a d6. If the d6 roll is 4-6, add 12 to the d12 roll. If the d12 rolls a 1 and the d6 rolls a 1-3, the guy is innocent.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    But really, a Detect Lie spell should separate the innocent from the guilty.

  • sarcasmic||

    Dork.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Hey, you're serious! My Detect Sarcasm spell didn't detect anything!

  • Damned Fool||

    I'd suggest detect evil, but we don't want the king's men to light up now do we?

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

    Won't work on a Fire Mage.

  • Loki||

    This seems appropriate here.

  • Agammamon||

    Jeez, you guys are stuck in the 70's - I'm surprised no-one has suggested using *chits*.

    Nowadays you can program it into your calculator emulation program on your smartphone.

  • JohnZeus||

    Pro-death penalty people almost invariably complain incessantly about govt being too big and not any good at the other things it does. But these people apparently believe that govt is magically infallible when it comes to this. Conservatives like to rail against Liberals for being ruled by emotions, but the death penalty is the perfect example of their hypocrisy. Faced with the fact that govt screws this up and that we absolutely have killed innocent people through executions, we're left with only one conclusion: pro-death penalty people are driven by their emotions on this topic. No rational person could condone giving govt this much literal power over life and death when it's proven they mess it up. Every year, DNA testing sets innocent people free who were convicted of horrible crimes. But still, Conservatives want to give govt more and more power and kill them faster. Emotions. Revenge!

  • Jordan||

    Yeah, this is true. A lot of them are in denial and a lot of them just don't really care that innocent people sometimes get executed.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Is that more problematic than innocent people getting killed in drone strikes?

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Not exactly apples to apples.

  • Calidissident||

    I don't see how. Pro-death penalty people definitely tend to take a very emotionally-based stance on the issue, which overrides their supposed skepticism of government.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    The government often tries to accomplish things which aren't realistically accomplishable even under ideal circumstances. Guilt often can be determined.

    The criminal justice system -- absent a bench trial with a court-appointed lawyer -- isn't solely a government operation.

    It's true that some people cast aside their skepticism about the government when it comes to trials, but the it's perfectly possible to distinguish between attempts to eradicate poverty, manage the economy, and the like from the attempt to determine whether Mike killed Jim.

  • Calidissident||

    But we're not just talking about determining guilt. We're talking about the necessity of using death as a legal punishment. And regardless of whether or not you can make a rational argument in favor of that, most people don't. To most people "THOSE SCUMBAGS DESERVE TO DIE!!!" is enough.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    I'm not trying to make "most people's" argument. I am saying that comparing the goals and failures of big government to the much more limited goal of a criminal justice systems isn't exactly apples to apples.

    The typical big government idiocy isn't challenged by a jury and an advocate for the other side. That doesn't make courts perfect by a longshot, but it makes them sufficiently different in scale from a War on Poverty that was doomed to fail before the sentence declaring it had even faded away.

  • ||

    To most people "THOSE SCUMBAGS DESERVE TO DIE!!!" is enough.

    A strawman, of course. You said yourself:

    We're talking about the necessity of using death as a legal punishment. And regardless

    of whether or not you can make a rational argument in favor of that, most people don't.

    "So instead of addressing the good-faith arguments and viewpoints that people on either side of

    the issue may have, I'll just substitute this caricature that's convenient to my viewpoint --

    arrived at through the pure application of mathematically precise reason-fu, natch."

  • sarcasmic||

    I've always thought it curious that supporters of the death penalty tend to be anti-abortion on the grounds that abortion kills innocent life, and supporters of abortion tend to be anti-death penalty on the grounds that the death penalty kills innocent life.

  • robc||

    Catholics oppose both. And innocent doesnt come into play.

  • SugarFree||

    For the anti-abortion/pro-DP crowd it all hinges on innocence, as if the courts are infallible. And for the pro-choice/anti-DP crowd they don't consider abortion murder and think that criminals are mostly victims of societal forces whether they committed the crime or not.

  • gimmeasammich||

    It seems to come down to that single question of when life begins. Each group has their own answer, hence their different views on capital punishment.

  • PapayaSF||

    Sen. Feinstein, being pro-abortion and pro-death penalty, has been described as "pro-death."

  • Robert||

    But the anti side is emotion-driven too. We accept the risk of accidental death of innocent people in lots of things either gov't or anyone else does. However, the numbers matter. Not many things are accepted that accidentally kill 4% of those who did not voluntarily choose the risk!

    I lay the fault in this case to criminal law in general. The whole adversarial system is fucked up conceptually as well as in practice. Anything outside of law where people's lives and other things of value are at stake, we leave to neutral experts such as doctors, architects, and engineers. Law we deliberately put in the hands of people whose job it is to take sides, and then we supposedly counteract that problem by having juries.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Not many things are accepted that accidentally kill 4% of those who did not voluntarily choose the risk!
    Atomic bombs were accepted in 1945.
  • Malkavian||

    laws like Florida's recently enacted "Timely Justice Act," which aims to shorten the average time between a sentence of death and the execution,

    You know who else passed laws to shorten the time between a sentence of death and the execution?

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    The common law?

  • Malkavian||

    +1 Doom Book.

    Actually, history of common law looks like an interesting read.

  • sarcasmic||

    But, but, but Tulpa said no innocent people are ever executed ever because our police and justice system can do no wrong!

  • John||

    Remember death penalty cases get by far the most scrutiny and due process of any criminal case. If one out of 25 death row inmates are innocent, how many of every 25 general population inmates are innocent? Just to give a SWAG, I would bet five since the typical death penalty case gets about five times the scrutiny that a normal case gets.

  • sarcasmic||

    They're all guilty of something.

  • kinnath||

    Yeah, but they was guilty of something. /cop

  • Ivan Pike||

    Yeah, but they was guilty of something. /cop

    So says the Cardinal.

    Give me six lines written by the most honest man in the world, and I will find enough in them to hang him.

    Cardinal Richelieu
  • dinkster||

    The cardinal was the only character in that book who wasn't a psychopath.

  • Longtorso, Johnny||

    I thought that was Ron Higgins, professional Cardinal Richelieu impersonator.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Thinking the same thing. With accountability decreasing every day, with increasing prosecutor and law enforcement misconduct, coupled with the often weak defense counsel used. . .yeah, I'd buy a 1/10 are innocent statistic.

  • John||

    The biggest thing I think is cop perjury. If a cop lies on the stand no attorney is going to be able to do much about it in most cases. Sadly, judges and juries have not figured out just how dishonest most cops are and can be on the stand.

  • Robert||

    The question is, why should they be dishonest? What hae they to gain? I could understand if they took bribes to say you were not guilty, but nobody bribes them to make you guilty. So they must just like fucking with people. And it's hard to believe they're like that, so why would judges & juries figure that out? Maybe juries should be loaded with cops, because they'd know how much cops lie, and not all of the cop-jurors would be the ones who like fucking with people.

  • gimmeasammich||

    I think you put entirely too much faith into a single group of people.

  • datcv||

    And that doesn't even account for how many committed crimes that shouldn't even be crimes.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Indeed. And that number may be much worse taking into account the innocent who plead guilty in plea bargaining.

  • Raven Nation||

    See Conrad Black's column from last week summarizing the corruption of the American justice system e.g. something like 98% of people accused cut plea bargains.

    I know someone who was intimately involved with the Enron collapse. She told me that when the feds went after the officers of the company they were all threatened with 20-30 year jail terms. Most of them had kids so, when they were offered very short terms to roll on Ken Lay they all took them even though they all proclaimed their innocence.

  • sarcasmic||

    Add on to that the fact that quite often the accused has had all of their assets stolen from them by the state, leaving them unable to hire their own defense.

  • Raven Nation||

    Yeah, that represented one of the biggest changes in my own thinking. I totally bought the line that criminals should not be allowed to profit from their criminality. It was until fairly recently that it finally penetrated my thick skull that pre-conviction confiscation was theft and, I would assume, unconstitutional.

  • John||

    The biggest reason so many people roll is the ability to obtain a conviction for lying to an investigator even if the underlying charge fails. All they have to do to get a conviction that results in at least a year or in some cases two or three is have one person contradict something you told an FBI agent. Worse still, the FBI does not and will not allow the recording of their interviews. So even if you have been entirely truthful, you are fucked because it is pretty much guaranteed they will find some agent who talked to you who can somehow remember what you asserting something that someone else disputes. This is what happened to both Scooter Libby and Martha Stewart.

    If they offer you a plea deal for home confinement or really anything less than a year, you have to take it and just lie about being guilty.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    That's why you don't talk to them.

  • Raven Nation||

    Which is why staying silent or claiming the fifth is now interpreted as "see, he must be hiding something."

  • DJK||

  • John||

    For sure. Of course, they can just get your colleagues who do to lie and convict you of something worse.

    These people are evil.

  • Raven Nation||

    Which, as it was explained to me, was what happened in the Enron case.

  • John||

    It wouldn't surprise me. I am not that familiar with the details of that case. I would not surprised at all if there wasn't anything criminal going on and it was just a business that got big thanks to a bubble and went broke when the bubble popped.

  • Paul.||

    I think it was pretty clear that there was a pretty big fraud going on, at least in respect to Enron and its investors.

    Then there was the ugliness where Enron was demanding that employees not sell their stock while top officials were dumping theirs.

    What probably made it worse was just the usual, odious corporate shit which isn't illegal, but is just... odious. Which is red meat to the New York Times.

  • Raven Nation||

    No doubt.

    The way it was explained to me was that they basically went after everyone to make themselves look good in the press, not really caring if a specific person was guilty or not (kind of what Spitzer used to do in NY). And, the argument was that the way public opinion was going any jury would convict. So, if you want to see your kids before they graduate from college...

  • SugarFree||

    Tulpa likes those odds.

  • John||

    The real problem with the Death Penalty is that we have totally forgotten its purpose and have turned it into a vengeance weapon for cases that piss society off. It has always been a vengeance weapon but there is more to it than that.

    The death penalty can be an effective deterrent but only for certain crimes. The threat of the death penalty is not going to keep the real deviants who kill little kids and such from doing what they do. It won't keep people from committing crimes of passion or keep idiot gang bangers who have bought into the thug life from killing each other. It only deters certain forms of very calculated crimes.

    First, it can deter people from killing law enforcement officers in the line of duty. Back in the days when killing a cop was an automatic trip to the electric chair, cops rarely drew their guns and rarely got shot at. All but the just complete lunatic criminals understood that killing a cop turned a prison sentence into a death sentence and acted accordingly.

    Second, it can deter criminals from killing witnesses to crimes. There are any number of studies that have compared states and nations who vigorously enforced the death penalty in felony murder cases to ones who didn't. In every single case the enforcement of the death penalty lead to fewer cases of criminals killing witnesses to their crimes.

  • John||

    Third, it serves as an effective deterrent against murder by those already in prison. One of the reasons why we now have super max prisons is because guards can no longer threaten really dangerous prisoners serving life sentences with the death penalty. The only way to control them and keep them from victimizing other inmates is to lock them up in increasingly horrible conditions until you end up with Super max, which is in my opinion horrible inhumane and immoral, much more so I think than the death penalty.

    I believe in the death penalty. I do not believe in it as a vengeance weapon. I think the current standards for applying the death penalty, which is basically it only applies to cases where the jury really hates the convicted for whatever reason, is completely mistaken.

    The death penalty needs to only be applied to cases of killing law enforcement officers (who are clearly uniformed and known by the defendant to be such) in the line of duty and killing potential witnesses to a crime. That would make the death penalty cases we do have actually have a positive effect on crime. Killing the scumbag who murdered Polly Klaus or Richard Ramirez makes us all feel good but it doesn't serve much larger purpose or deter any future criminals. Applying it in the three cases I list does.

  • John||

    Applying it to just those sorts of cases would also reduce the total number of death penalty cases and increase the chances of the government getting the right guy. Moreover, it would take the death penalty off the table in many of the most horrific and emotional crimes where societal outrage is most likely to push the cops and the courts into convicting the wrong guy.

    Lastly, it would be a fair and equal standard. It wouldn't matter if you were a nice guy or you were white or rich or if you were that but the media decided to make your dead wife the "dead white girl of the month" or if you were black and poor whatever. You could only get the death penalty for doing specific things and if you did those things being a cuddly defendant wouldn't help you.

    That is my two sense anyway.

  • Gadianton||

    I've never believed in the death penalty as a deterrent (except in the case of the person being executed). I'll take your word for the specific cases you apply it to.

    My thought is that there are people who commit acts which are so heinous that the only just punishment is death. Today society limits the list more than I do. I would add to the things you list: child murder, child molestation, and rape. Not from any hope of deterrence, but to protect the community from the kind of people who do such things.

    All of the above presupposes a system of criminal justice which actually cares about determining guilt and innocence.

  • Robert||

    Your additions would tend to do the opposite things to the objects John brought up. For example, one would then be encouraged to kill the rape victim.

  • Robert||

    Your additions would tend to do the opposite things to the objects John brought up. For example, one would then be encouraged to kill the rape victim.

  • Gadianton||

    Murdering the rape victim is murdering a witness to the crime, but I take your point.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    when the penalty for rape is the same as murdering a witness to the rape (death), then there is no relative deterrent against murdering a witness to a rape.

  • Robert||

    The direct link to the Materials & Methods section doesn't seem to work, so I wonder if they defined "exoneration" as simply vacating a conviction, while implying that the person was actually innocent. If so, then the results are overstated. If not, then I'm actually more outraged that a large proportion of convicts are kept in prison under condition of "enough doubt raised that the person might be actually innocent, but not enough to free them, and no resources to resolve the matter" than I am about a small number of them being killed.

  • jmomls||

    Bah, these guys & the occasional gal have rap sheets a mile and half long in most cases. They should've been executed for something years ago.

  • ||

    The jails in this world are full of innocent people....ask anyone of the prisoners here in the U.S. what they are in jail for...everyone of them was either framed or set up or misunderstood or got a bad lawyer ^ times in a row 99.95% will tell you they did nothing wrong....given that figure kind of sheds some doubt on this study....they should be tried convicted and dragged out back of the court house and executed immediately....

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