Nearly 70 Percent of Death Sentences Reversed, Study Finds


Nearly seven out of 10 death sentences imposed in the United States between 1973 and 1995 were reversed due to "serious error" that left the reliability of the trial outcome in doubt, according to a Columbia University study released Monday.

The Justice Project , which took nine years to complete, put the overall error rate for total capital-punishment system at 68 percent, and defined the most common serious errors found in death cases as incompetent legal defense work and suppression of evidence by prosecutors.

The findings follow a decision by Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan to impose a moratorium on Illinois executions beginning Jan. 31, because 13 Illinois death row inmates had been cleared and 12 had been executed since 1977, the year Ryan's state resumed the death penalty.

When it comes to an overall examination of death sentences reversed in state courts, nearly five out of every 10, or 47 percent, were reversed, the Justice Project found. Court records of 28 states were used to amass data for the project. Thirty-four states currently impose the death penalty.

Wyoming was No. 1, with 78 percent of capital-judgment cases reversed, trailed by Maryland (77 percent), Mississippi (69 percent), North Carolina (65 percent), South Carolina (62 percent), Alabama (59 percent), Florida (58 percent), and Kentucky, Louisiana, Utah and Oklahoma, which all had 50 percent.

Texas and Nevada were listed at No. 21, with 35 percent, followed by California (33 percent), Pennsylvania (29 percent), Missouri (20 percent) and Virginia (13 percent).

No statistics were listed for Delaware and Washington.

The Columbia study examined 4,578 capital punishment cases that had completed at least one round of appeals. Of 5,760 death sentences imposed from 1973 to 1995, only 5 percent were carried out, according to the Justice Project.

Public support for the death penalty is strong nationwide. A Gallup Poll conducted in February indicated 66 percent favor executions, a slight downturn from the 71 percent to 80 percent that backed capital punishment during the 1990s.

Regarding death-sentence cases reversed on state direct appeal, Wyoming again led the nation, with reversible error found in 67 percent of its cases. Mississippi and North Carolina were second at 61 percent, followed by Alabama (55 percent), South Carolina (54 percent), Maryland (53 percent), Kentucky (50 percent), Florida (49 percent) and Oklahoma (48 percent).

The national composite indicated that 41 percent, or two out of every five, death sentences were reversed on direct state, according to the Justice Project, which was overseen headed by Columbia law professor James Liebman

Of 28 states whose death-sentence records were scrutinized on state direct appeal, the bottom five were Nebraska and Tennessee, which had 29 percent, Pennsylvania (28 percent), Delaware (26 percent), Missouri (17 percent) and Virginia (10 percent).

Illinois was No. 16, with 39 percent of its death penalty cases reversed on direct state appeal. "I think that our system was in such bad shape we had to do what we did, and that's why I called the moratorium," Ryan told the Chicago Tribune . "We couldn't take any more chances. There are a lot of very obvious things that were wrong with our system and things that were fixable."

Among other Justice Project findings:

  • In death-penalty cases where serious errors have been uncovered and the case retried, 82 percent of capital judgments were replaced with a sentence less severe than the death penalty, or with no sentence at all.
  • State post-conviction review of death-sentence cases was found to be an important source of review in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee.

In a related news story, the Chicago Tribune yesterday began running a series of articles claiming that dozens of Texas death row inmates whose cases were compromised by unreliable evidence, disbarred of suspended defense attorneys and dubious psychiatric testimony have allegedly been executed under Texas Gov. George W. Bush, currently campaigning as the Republican nominee for president. Bush declined to be interviewed by the Tribune.

However, his criminal justice policy director, Johnny Sutton, told the newspaper: "We have a system in place that is very careful and that gives years and years of super due process to make sure that no innocent defendants are executed and that the defendant received a fair trial."Bush recently allowed a 30-day reprieve in a capital punishment case in order to conduct DNA testing, after having permitted 131 executions.


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