NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Death Penalty Report Widely Misinterpreted

June 16, 2000

On Monday, avowed opponents of the death penalty released a report purporting to demonstrate that the nation's capital punishment system is "collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes." It claimed a 68 percent "error rate" in capital cases -- which invites the unwitting to suppose that the wrong man was put to death in 68 percent of executions. But a serious look at the facts reveals that nothing could be further from the truth.

The report's critics are attempting to set the record straight.

  • After reviewing 23 years of capital sentences, the study's authors -- like other researchers -- were unable to find a single case in which an innocent person was executed.
  • The 68 percent "error rate" actually includes any reversal of a capital sentence at any stage by appellate court -- even if those courts ultimately upheld a capital sentence.
  • Numerous appeals in capital cases demonstrate extraordinary adherence to due process -- not evidence of mistakes, as the study's authors attempt to argue.
  • Critics charge that the study skews its sample with cases that are several decades old, covering 1973 to 1995 -- a period during which the Supreme Court handed down a welter of decisions setting constitutional procedures for capital cases.

So the decades-old reversals have no relevance to contemporary death-penalty issues, legal experts point out. Studies focusing on more recent trends have found that reversal rates have declined sharply as the law has become settled.

The report is also being faulted for its reliance on newspaper articles and secondhand sources for factual assertions to an extent not ordinarily found in academic research. This approach, critics object, causes some jarring mistakes.

Source: Paul G. Cassell (University of Utah), "We're Not Executing the Innocent," Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2000.


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