A recent student indicates that as many as 1 in 25 criminal defendants handed the death sentence in the U.S. is innocent. Contrasting previous calculations that have merely divided the number of confirmed exonerations by the number of defendants, Gross and his colleagues also account for re-sentenced inmates who would likely have been exonerated if they would have remained on death row. With as many as one-third of death row convictions resulting in re-sentencing to life imprisonment, this is a significant population that is now being considered by statisticians.
While the stated takeaway of this finding is that new calculations into the causes of false convictions are now possible, the larger insight should be into the nature of the death penalty itself. While sentencing an innocent individual to prison is certainly unjust, subjecting even one innocent individual to death is inexcusable. The only way to avoid this possibility is to abolish the death penalty completely. Ridding ourselves of the practice of capital punishment is the only humane solution.
To calculate what the total rate of exonerations would be if all death row defendants remained on death row indefinitely and had equal access to resources, the researchers turned to statistical techniques normally used in medical studies. Although only 1.6% of defendants who had been sentenced to death were actually exonerated between 1973 and 2004, 4.1% of defendants were likely falsely convicted, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because the number is an extrapolation, it doesn’t reveal exactly which defendants—out of those resentenced for life or executed—were falsely convicted. “The main message is that false convictions are not rare events,” Gross says. “It’s something that’s going to keep happening on a steady basis, and it means we should work hard to try and avoid it.” David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center and founder of the Texas Innocence Network, a group of lawyers that represents death row inmates and works to reveal false convictions, says the number doesn’t surprise him. “This is really the number that people who have spent a lot of time doing capital work have intuited,” he says. “The larger hope is that it finally reaches people who have been resisting the acknowledgement of this reality, which is that we make a somewhat significant number of mistakes.”