STUDIES: The Problem of Innocence Is Worse Than Was Thought

On April 28 a study published in the prestigous Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that far more innocent people have been sentenced to death than those found through the legal process. According to the study, many innocent defendants are probably not being identified because they were taken off death row and given a lesser sentence. The rate of exonerations for those sentenced to death would be over twice as high if all cases were given the heightened scrutiny often accorded to those who remain on death row. The authors of "The Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who are Sentenced to Death" concluded: "[A] conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions of defendants sentenced to death in the United States from 1973 through 2004 [is] 4.1%." The percentage of death row inmates who were actually exonerated during the time of the study was only 1.6%. Professor Samuel Gross (pictured) of the University of Michigan Law School, one of the authors of the study, pointed to the gravity of the problem: “Since 1973, nearly 8,500 defendants have been sentenced to death in the United States, and 138 of them have been exonerated. Our study means that more than 200 additional innocent defendants have been sentenced to death in that period. Most of these undiscovered innocent capital defendants have been resentenced to life in prison, and then forgotten.”

The study makes use of DPIC's list of Exonerated Individuals as the baseline for its analysis. The total number of people exonerated and freed from death row since 1973 is now 144. The most recent person freed was Glenn Ford of Louisiana in 2014.

(S. Gross, et al., "The Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who are Sentenced to Death," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 28, 2014; DPIC Press Release, "NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES STUDY POINTS TO HIGH RATE OF INNOCENCE ON DEATH ROW," April 28, 2014). See Innocence and Studies.