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Sentenced to die: Too many innocent Blacks executed

Freddie Allen | 5/15/2014, 8:16 p.m.
The gurney in the death chamber of the Huntsville "Walls" Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit, Huntsville, Texas. Pat Sullivan

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Since 1973, more than 300 innocent defendants have been sentenced to death, largely because Blacks are overrepresented among murder convictions and among those who are wrongfully condemned to die, according to a recent report.

“The size of the group of innocent people sent to death surprised me,” said Samuel Gross, co-author of the study and a law school professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “I would not have predicted it was anywhere near that large.”

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that between 1973 and 2004 about 1 in 25 (4.1 percent) defendants that received a death sentence were falsely convicted and would have likely been exonerated if they remained on death row indefinitely.

In a statement, Gross said that most of these undiscovered, innocent capital defendants have been re-sentenced to life in prison, and then forgotten. Although death sentence cases account for roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of prison sentences, they represent about 12 percent of the known exonerations between 1989 and 2012.

“A major reason for this extraordinary exoneration rate is that far more attention and resources are devoted to death penalty cases than to other criminal prosecutions, before and after conviction,” the report stated.

Most felony convictions occur without any evidence presented in court and are often the condition of negotiated plea deals. Once convicted, few defendants receive legal counsel. The report said that death sentence cases are far different.

“All death sentences are reviewed on appeal; almost all are reviewed repeatedly. With few exceptions, capital defendants have lawyers as long as they remain on death row. Everyone, from the first officer on the scene of a potentially capital crime to the chief justice of the United States, takes capital cases more seriously than other criminal prosecutions – and knows that everybody else will do so as well,” the report stated. “And everyone from defense lawyers to innocence projects to governors and state and federal judges is likely to be particularly careful to avoid the execution of innocent defendants.”

Once the threat of execution is eliminated, the players move on and the chances of an innocent person regaining their freedom quickly fade away.

“The comment about that is that the death penalty system takes a lot of the resources from the ‘regular’ criminal justice system,” said Robert Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The most recent research suggests that each death penalty case costs an average of $3 million from beginning to the end. Dieter said that $3 million doesn’t capture all the costs associated with a death penalty case, because not everybody that receives the death sentence is actually executed.

Dieter said that per execution, the costs are 10 times higher, because only about 10 percent of people who get the death penalty are executed. That means that one execution costs closer to $30 million. Dieter continued: “The net costs of all the legal work and all the cases that lead up to it, and end up with that single execution make it highly expensive for just one execution.”