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April 28, 2014

New study concludes "conservative estimate" of erroneous US capital convictions has been over 4%

As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Study: 1 in 25 death cases likely innocent," a notable new report makes a notable new claim about the number of innocent persons who have been sent to death row in the United States.   Here are the basics:

About one in 25 people imprisoned under a death sentence is likely innocent, according to a new statistical study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  And that means it is all but certain that at least several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977 were innocent, the study says.

From 1973 to 2004, 1.6 percent of those sentenced to death in the U.S. — 138 prisoners — were exonerated and released because of innocence.  But the great majority of innocent people who are sentenced to death are never identified and freed, says professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, the study’s lead author.

The difficulty in identifying innocent inmates stems from the fact that more than 60 percent of prisoners in death penalty cases ultimately are removed from death row and resentenced to life imprisonment.  Once that happens, their cases no longer receive the exhaustive reviews that the legal system provides for those on death row.

Gross and three other researchers, including a biostatistics expert, looked at the issue using a technique often used in medical studies called survival analysis.  Yale University biostatistics expert Theodore Holford, who wasn’t part of the study, said the work done by Gross “seems to be a reasonable way to look at these data.”  Because of various assumptions, it might be best to use the margin of error in the study and say the innocence rate is probably between 2.8 percent and 5.2 percent, said University of South Carolina statistics professor John Grego, who wasn’t part of the study.

The study is the first to use solid and appropriate statistical methods to address questions of exoneration or false convictions, an important subject, said Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan, who also is a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health.  The research combines data from three independent sources, a rigorous approach used by few studies on capital punishment, he said....

The study concluded that the number of innocent defendants who have been put to death is “comparatively low. ...  Our data and the experience of practitioners in the field both indicate that the criminal justice system goes to far greater lengths to avoid executing innocent defendants than to prevent them from remaining in prison indefinitely.”...

Death sentences represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of prison sentences in the U.S., but they account for 12 percent of known exonerations of innocent defendants from 1989 to 2012. One big reason is that far more attention and resources are devoted to reviewing and reconsidering death sentences....

The study estimates that if all defendants sentenced to death remained in that status, “at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.  We conclude that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false conviction among death sentences in the United States.”

The full report is available via this link. The authors are Samuel R. Gross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, and Edward H. Kennedy, and the paper's official title is "Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death."

April 28, 2014 at 05:48 PM | Permalink


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Note how facile these guys are---we go from "exoneration" (which may or may not mean that the guy didn't do it) to "innocent" guy executed.

How stupid is the AP reporter for not noticing this?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 28, 2014 10:38:51 PM

Why since 1977? The project I've been working on for 10 years is a lot older than 1977 and the guy is still just as dead. Executions are fairly permanent.

Posted by: George | Apr 29, 2014 12:26:38 AM

Federalist, Kirk Bloodsworth spent eight years in a Baltimore County, Md., prison, two of those on death row. He was convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl. In 1993, DNA testing both excluded Bloodsworth as the child’s killer and helped convict the real killer. It was the first capital conviction case in the U.S. to be overturned through DNA testing.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Apr 29, 2014 7:04:33 AM

Federalist, according to another blog, "Damon Thibodeaux was absolved of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step cousin. A seven-year investigation produced DNA evidence contradicting his confession to the crime. Investigators say Thibodeaux confessed in 1997 while under duress from detectives. The 37-year-old had spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison awaiting his execution."

Posted by: observer12 | Apr 29, 2014 7:06:49 AM

Federalist, I have read that John Edward Smith, a former gang member, spent 19 years in prison for murder following a gang-related drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. He was released in September 2012 after the only witness to the incident admitted that the police had pressured him to blame Smith for the murder.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Apr 29, 2014 7:09:10 AM

On March 29, 2012, Michael Morton of Austin, Texas, spoke to the public for the first time since he was freed from prison after spending nearly 25 years behind bars for murdering his wife. New DNA tests done on a bandana found near Morton's home discovered blood from his wife and a California felon, suggesting the the latter man, not Morton, committed the crime.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Apr 29, 2014 7:12:07 AM

I read that in January 2013, former Akron, Ohio, police captain Douglas Prade was exonerated of the murder of his ex-wife. He had spent 15 years in the Madison Correctional Institution outside Columbus, largely because of a bite mark found on his ex-wife's blood-soaked body. DNA testing proved he was innocent.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Apr 29, 2014 7:13:32 AM

Johnathan Flemming was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a 1989 murder in Brooklyn despite evidence he was in Florida at the time. He was exonerated in 2014 after the only eyewitness recanted, another witness identified the real killer, and it was discovered that authorities had concealed a receipt showing he paid a hotel bill in Orlando hours before the shooting in New York. (AP photo by Seth Wenig)

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Apr 29, 2014 7:17:06 AM

In 1968, Walter Lomax was sentenced to life in prison for robbery and murder in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2006, his sentence was reduced and he was released after 38 years in prison. In 2014, Lomax was exonerated when the Baltimore State's Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit discovered that evidence from the original investigation that had been concealed for decades showed that Lomax could not have been the murderer.

Posted by: observer | Apr 29, 2014 7:18:43 AM

In 1995, Christopher Coleman was sentenced to 60 years in prison for participating in a home invasion rape and robbery in Peoria, Illinois. He was exonerated in March 2014 after the true criminals testified that Coleman was not involved, and a trial witness admitted he lied when he identified Coleman as one of the criminals.

Posted by: observer | Apr 29, 2014 7:21:57 AM

The error rate of any human enterprise represents an argument for improvement and prevention. It does not argue for abolition, as the crash rate does not argue to end all transportation, including walking, since hundreds are killed walking. All are butchered by crushing, being torn apart and burnt without benefit of due process.

I have addressed the exoneration rate problem otherwise.

1) In 123D, it does not matter if the prisoner was innocent of the murder, since we are getting rid a violent bad guy anyway. He could be executed for shoplifting, as necessary.

2) If a prosecutor or a judge did not carry out his full professional duties and did not operate at professional standards of due care, he should be sued and compensate the estate of the condemned. To deter. Intentional acts of malfeasance get the usual exemplary damages.

3)All appellate reviews should go to seasoned investigators, not to know nothing, lazy, slow shuffling, political has been, lawyer dumb asses on some appellate bench. The focus should not be on a legal loophole or legal procedural error, but on the verification of the fact by experts. It should be allowed to consult these experts prior to trial as well.

4) In the Rules of Evidence, end all eyewitness testimony not verified by physical evidenced. Such testimony is implanted false memory by the police, seeking to get some clearance, and the politicians off their backs.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 29, 2014 9:29:43 AM

I read an article about Glenn Ford. According to the article, Ford spent 30 years on Louisiana's death row and was freed after prosecutors filed motions to vacate his conviction and sentence. Louisiana Judge Ramona Emanuel ordered Glenn Ford to be “unconditionally released from the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections" on March 11, 2014.

Prosecutors said they had received "credible evidence" that Ford "was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder" of which he was convicted in 1984. Ford, who has always maintained his innocence, was tried and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. One of the witnesses against him said at trial that police had helped her make up her story. A state "expert" who testified about the victim's time of death had not even examined the body. Ford's lead trial attorney had never tried a jury case before. A second attorney, two years out of law school, worked at an insurance defense firm. They failed to hire any experts to rebut the prosecution's case because they believed they would have to pay for the experts themselves. The Louisiana Supreme Court earlier said it had "serious questions" about the outcome of the trial, but did not reverse Ford's conviction. Ford may have been involved in trying to pawn jewelry from the victim that he received from one of the original codefendants.

Posted by: Mary from Vermont | Apr 29, 2014 12:13:05 PM

Don't forget the case of Reginald Griffin.

Griffin was sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction was overturned in 2011 by the Missouri Supreme Court (Griffin v. Denney, No. SC91112, Aug. 2, 2011) because the state had withheld critical evidence. Griffin's conviction relied on the testimony of two jailhouse informants who received benefits in exchange for their testimony. Prosecutors withheld evidence that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, immediately after the stabbing. Both of Griffin's co-defendants consistently said the third person involved in the crime was Smith, not Griffin. Cyndy Short, the current lead attorney for Griffin, said, "Reggie and his family are overjoyed. This has been a massive weight upon them all for three decades."

In overturning Griffin's conviction, the Missouri Supreme Court said, "There is no physical evidence connecting Griffin to the weapon found in the gymnasium. There is no physical evidence demonstrating any contact between Griffin and Bausley. Instead, Griffin’s continued incarceration for Bausley’s murder is premised on the recanted testimony of inmate Curtis and the impeached testimony of deceased inmate Mozee. Overlaying the entire case is the revelation that the State failed to disclose evidence that tended to implicate Smith, impeach Curtis and Mozee, and bolster the trial testimony of inmate Rogers, who maintained that the inmate fleeing the crime scene was not Griffin."

Posted by: Amy | Apr 29, 2014 12:16:38 PM

And alsoremember the case of Anthony Graves.

Graves was released from a Texas prison on October 27, 2010, after Washington-Burleson County District Attorney Bill Parham filed a motion to dismiss all charges that had resulted in Graves being sent to death row 16 years earlier. Graves was convicted in 1994 of assisting Robert Carter in multiple murders in 1992. There was no physical evidence linking Graves to the crime, and his conviction relied primarily on Carter’s testimony that Graves was his accomplice. Two weeks before Carter was scheduled to be executed in 2000, he provided a statement saying he lied about Graves’s involvement in the crime. He repeated that statement minutes before his execution. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Graves’s conviction and ordered a new trial after finding that prosecutors elicited false statements and withheld testimony that could have influenced the jurors. (Graves v. Dretke, No. 05-70011, U.S. 5th Cir. Mar. 6, 2006). After D.A. Parham began to reassemble the case and review the evidence, he hired former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler as a special prosecutor. Siegler soon realized that making a case against Graves would be impossible: "After months of investigation and talking to every witness who's ever been involved in this case, and people who've never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder. This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn't make the case anymore. He is an innocent man," Siegler said.

See B. Rogers, "Prisoner ordered free from Texas' death row," Houston Chronicle, October 28, 2010).

Posted by: Amy | Apr 29, 2014 12:21:23 PM

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