Magazine article Corrections Forum

Study Fuels National Debate on the Death Penalty

Magazine article Corrections Forum

Study Fuels National Debate on the Death Penalty

Article excerpt

In January 2000, Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) issued a moratorium on the death penalty after learning that 13 death row inmates were exonerated in his state since 1977 due to errors in their cases. Eight other states, including Maryland, California, and Nebraska, also have issued or proposed moratoriums on the death penalty. In addition, Congress has introduced legislation, such as the Innocence Protection Act, designed to safeguard against errors in capital punishment cases.

On the heels of this new trend, Columbia University Law Professor James S. Liebman released his study, A

Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995, which found that a majority of death penalty cases had been reversed due to serious errors during the study period. Proponents of the death penalty, however, argue that the report points to the importance and effectiveness of the appeals process, particularly in cases where capital punishment is involved.

According to the study, 5,760 death sentences have been imposed since the implementation of new capital punishment statutes in 1973. Liebman focused on 4,578 cases in which at least one direct appeal was completed in a higher state court. Thirty-four of the 38 states that carry the death penalty were covered in the study.

According to Liebman, the rate of serious error from 1973 to 1995 in the capital punishment system was 68 percent, which meant in nearly seven out of ten cases, a serious enough error occurred to warrant either a review of the trial or a completely new trial. These cases could have been overturned in either of two state appellate courts or the federal district court. The study revealed that for every 100 felons who were convicted and sentenced to death, 41 were returned to the trial courts at the state direct appeals level, six were returned to the second state appeals level, and 21 were returned to the federal habeas level. The error rate was compared using the complete number of capital judgements that successfully passed review, compared to those that had been thrown out before the end of the review process. Among those states covered in the study, more than 9 out of 10 had an error rate greater than 52 percent in

their death penalty cases. According to the report, there were two major sources of this error. The first resulted from lawyers who missed or failed to use evidence that had the potential to set their clients free and the second came from prosecutors who suppressed important evidence so it could never be heard by a jury.

The Liebman report also found that 82 percent of defendants in cases that were overturned in the post conviction stages received a new sentence that was less than the death penalty, while 7 percent were found innocent of the crime. Thus, 93 percent of appellate reversals led to another conviction between 1973 and 1995, 11 percent of which led to another death sentence. …

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