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It was "a reminder to fight the good fight," said attorney Deborah Ellis, on this photo of then death-row inmate Glenn Ford.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

4% of death row inmates are likely innocent, study finds

  • Article by: Monte Morin
  • Los Angeles Times
  • April 29, 2014 - 7:07 PM

– A new study argues that more than 4 percent of all defendants who have been sentenced to death and who remain under threat of execution are likely innocent.

In a paper published this week in the journal PNAS, a team of researchers statistically examined the cases of 7,482 death row convictions from 1973 to 2004.

Study authors estimated that if all death-sentence defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.

The percentage of innocent people who have had death sentences commuted to life is even greater, authors said.

“The great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of capital murder in the United States are neither executed nor exonerated,” wrote Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan Law School professor. “They are sentenced, or resentenced to prison for life, and then forgotten.”

Gross said the differing rates had to do with the unique workings of the justice system.

Specifically, the cases of defendants actively awaiting execution on death row receive the most intense scrutiny of all criminal convictions. Prisoners who have had their sentences reduced to life in prison receive much less scrutiny.

In the time period examined, authors wrote that 943 people had been executed, or roughly 13 percent of the 7,482 death sentences imposed.

By contrast, 117, or roughly 2 percent, were exonerated. An additional 2,675, or roughly 36 percent of the total, had their sentences commuted.

Authors wrote that the most charged question about capital punishment was how many innocent defendants have been executed. “We cannot estimate that number directly but we believe it is comparatively low,” they wrote.

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