Brooke A. MastersStudy faults death penalty in US
Paris, Tuesday, June 13, 2000
WASHINGTON - A comprehensive study of 23 years of capital punishment has found that more than two-thirds of America's death sentences are overturned on appeal, leading the report's author to conclude that this country has a "broken system" that is "fraught with error."
In one of the most exhaustive studies of capital punishment ever, James Liebman, a Columbia University law professor, found that just 5 percent of the 5,760 inmates sentenced to death in the United States between 1973 and 1995 were executed within the study period. And when capital cases were sent back for a new trial, 7 percent of the defendants were found not guilty, and fewer than two in 10 of those who were convicted again got another death sentence, the study found.
Death penalty supporters interpreted the numbers differently than Mr. Liebman. They say the report proves that there is only the slimmest of chances of executing an innocent person because the appeals courts subject the cases to extraordinary scrutiny. They also note that 93 percent of those inmates retried were convicted again, though many received a lesser sentence.
Nine years in the making, Mr. Liebman's study is adding fuel to an already fiery debate about capital punishment in America. Although executions have reached record numbers, public support is at a 19-year low. And voices from across the political spectrum have begun to question whether those on death row received fair trials.
Illinois has halted executions while a commission tries to determine why more inmates have been exonerated than executed there. The Republican governors of Virginia and Texas this month ordered new DNA tests for men who say they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death. And last week, the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, a Democrat, commuted a death sentence because he was not completely sure of the guilt of a death-row inmate, Eugene Colvin-el.
"It's not just one case, it's not just one state. Error was found at epidemic levels across the country," Mr. Liebman said. "From the point of view of a taxpayer, I am paying all this money for capital punishment, and they're managing to carry out just one in 20 death sentences."
Charles Baird, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who recently joined a national group seeking death penalty reforms, agreed. "I knew the system was terribly flawed, but I was shocked at the numbers," he said.
But Josh Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor who sits on the board of the National District Attorneys Association, said the numbers "confirm that the system is working," adding that "mistakes that are made by prosecutors and judges are caught."
Dudley Sharp, a director of the Texas-based reform group Justice for All, pointed out that the study covers a period when rules for capital punishment were changing rapidly. "As time goes on, we will see fewer and fewer cases overturned as the law becomes more established," he predicted.
To determine why death sentences were overturned, the study looked closely at every case that was sent back during a second round of state appeals. In 37 percent of reversals at that stage, appeals courts ruled that defendants' attorneys were so bad that their performance substantially altered the trial outcome. Misconduct by prosecutors - who suppressed exculpatory or mitigating evidence - accounted for 16 percent of the reversals.
Those figures suggest the need for national standards for defense lawyers and rules making post-conviction DNA testing available to all death row inmates, said Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who is sponsoring a bill that would make both the law.
Mr. Liebman argues that the frequent reversals harm the families of murder victims by adding uncertainty and by forcing them to sit through retrials.
Victims advocates agree, but they said capital punishment was not the problem. Rather, they said, the study simply emphasized the need to handle cases right the first time.
"The system of protecting the rights of accused is good," said Stanley Rosenbluth, who founded Virginians Against Crime after his son and daughter-in-law were murdered in 1993. "It's the people who are administering it who need improvement: The judges that make mistakes and don't permit evidence to be introduced."
He added: "We also need improvement of the defense attorneys."
The Columbia study also highlighted significant disparities among the states with capital punishment. During the study period, for example, none of Maryland's 60 death sentences survived judicial review. The lone person executed had given up his appeals and agreed to die. Virginia, on the other hand, executed 28 percent of the 105 people sentenced to death in the study period, the highest ratio in the nation.
Texas had a reversal rate of 52 percent, the study found. Illinois, which is sometimes described as unusually troubled, is about average: 66 percent of death sentences were overturned during the study. The national reversal rate is 68 percent. "If you had a hospital where two-thirds of their surgeries were wrong, how long would it take to close it down?" Mr. Leahy asked. "We should have zero tolerance for mistakes."