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Deadly Questions

Study raises questions about capital punishment in the U.S.

by David Johnson

This article was posted on June 22, 2000.

Source/Amnesty International

Illinois Governor George Ryan recently announced a moratorium on executions, saying "innocent people on death row is unacceptable."

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The debate on the death penalty has intensified with the release of a report raising serious questions about how the criminal justice system works in the United States.

A 23-year-long study released on June 12, 2000, states that two-thirds of all capital punishment cases contained flaws serious enough to warrant that they be retried. The study also prompted renewed calls for review, or outright abolition, of the death penalty, which is administered on a state-by-state basis.

No Wrongful Executions

On the other hand, death penalty supporters say the study does not claim anyone has been wrongfully executed. They point out that the lengthy appeals process proves the system works.

The study found that of capital cases returned for new trials, seven percent were found not guilty, while 93 percent of those tried were convicted again, with many receiving lighter sentences. Fewer than 20 percent received the death sentence the second time, according to the study.

Five percent of the 5,760 inmates sentenced to death nationwide between 1973 and 1995 were actually executed during the study period. The study said it takes an average of nine years from the time the sentence is handed down to when it was actually imposed.

DNA Testing Supported

Columbia University law professor James S. Liebman led the researchers from Columbia and New York University, who studied more than 4,578 death penalty appeals from 1973 to 1995 and found that state or federal courts overturned either the conviction or the imposition of the death sentence 68 percent of the cases.

"e;What we found is it's not just one case, and it's not just one state,"e; Liebman said in releasing the report.

The study said incompetent defense attorneys, and the suppression of evidence by police or prosecutors are among the most common mistakes made in capital cases. Liebman said if the government spent more time and money during trials, fewer errors would generate a shorter appeals process and a higher success rate.

He also endorsed greater use of DNA testing and competency and compensation standards for court-appointed defense attorneys, who often handle cases of indigent defendants.

Public Support

While public support has dropped from a high of 80 percent in 1994, a Gallup Poll in February found 66 percent of Americans support for the death penalty.

In response to considerable public pressure, the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Illinois Review Death Penalty Cases

In January, Illinois Governor George Ryan announced a moratorium on executions until a commission can investigate 13 death penalty cases that had been overturned after the condemned criminals were found innocent. New factors affecting the reversals included DNA evidence, recanted testimony, or a determination of insufficient evidence.

The 13 cases were overturned since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977. The state executed 12 people during the same period.

In announcing the moratorium at a press conference, the Republican governor said that while he supports the death penalty, "innocent people on death row is unacceptable."

Nebraska, Indiana, and Maryland have commissioned studies to review how the death penalty is administered.

Supreme Court Decision

Meanwhile, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling will make it more difficult for convicted killers to challenge their death sentences.

On June 12, by a 5-4 vote, the court upheld a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, validating a Virginia man's death sentence, even though information was withheld from the original jury—namely, that the convicted man would be ineligible for parole if he received a life sentence rather than the death penalty.

Sources: CNN, ABC, MSNBC

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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