NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Death Penalty Study Disputed

February 11, 2002

Death sentences are more likely to be reversed in areas that often use that penalty, have higher black populations and where judges face political pressure, says a study headed by Columbia University Law School Prof. James Liebman.

His team of researchers found that while race, politics and an overburdened legal system played a strong role, areas that relied heavily on the death penalty as punishment -- even in weaker cases -- were more likely to impose a flawed capital sentence.

But Joshua Marquis, a board member of the National District Attorney's Association, took issue with the report. He called the study flawed because it suggested that "a high rate of reversals in death penalty cases is closely connected to the increased scrutiny judges give them" -- not because of mistakes by the police or overzealous prosecutors.

  • A report by Liebman in 2000 found that 68 percent of all death sentences reviewed from 1973 to 1995 were reversed by courts because of serious errors.
  • In those reversals, 82 percent of defendants eventually received lesser sentences and 9 percent were freed.
  • In his latest study, Lieberman found broad differences from one area to another -- even within the same state.
  • Even so, about 95 percent of all murder convictions are affirmed, although some death sentences are set aside for lesser penalties.

The study identified three errors which often led to reversals: incompetent legal counsel, police officers or prosecutors who withhold evidence or judges who gave juries the wrong instructions.

The study suggests barring the death penalty for defendants who are juveniles or mentally ill, making life imprisonment without parole an alternative to death, and appointing competent defense counsel.

Source: Reuters, "Death Penalty Reversed More as Use Rises, Study Finds," New York Times; and Richard Willing, "Fight Against Death Penalty Gains Ground," USA Today, both appeared February 11, 2002.


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