Alert: Innocent People are in Prison (even Death Row!)

Well, our criminal justice system is not flawless. According to statisticians, a little over four percent of those sent to death row are innocent. In another unsurprising turn of events, United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s claim that courts are correct “99.973 percent” of the time is, well, wrong.

This specific study focused on death row. Death row presents a unique situation in terms of guilt and innocence. In around ninety-three percent of criminal cases, plea bargains are reached before a court even has to render a sentence. But death row involves much more time examining a case. Death row trials involve a bifurcated trial process. Death row trials often are subject to years and years of appeals. And even after all of this, 4.1 percent of death row inmates are most likely innocent.

The exception, the authors argue, is death penalty cases. Here, matters of guilt and innocence are examined in detail, often for decades after sentencing. Even though these cases account for less than 0.1 percent of the prison sentences in the US, 12 percent of the individuals who are exonerated after conviction were sentenced to death. So if we’re ever to have an accurate measure of the rates of erroneous convictions, this is the place.

The authors also note that even when a death row inmate is exonerated, his sentence is most likely converted to one of life in prison. This means that many who are exonerated will often end up serving the remainder of their lives behind bars. While the state will not directly put them to death, these convicted will die under its watch. These are the most likely innocent individuals that the study did not reach. Thus, the 4.1 percent number might in actuality be lower.

Read the original researchers’ paper at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Thanks to John Timmer of Ars Technica for the find.


Federal Prosecutors in New York Secure Death Penalty for Ronell Wilson

Jurors in New York have handed down a rare death sentence to Ronell Wilson, convicted of killing two undercover detectives. What makes this even more interesting is that this was the second death sentence he was given. Federal prosecutors took the trial from the state of New York due to that state’s highest court striking down capital punishment. The US government successfully garnered a conviction and death sentence for Wilson, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it due to the prosecutor informing the jury that if Wilson had any remorse for his crime, he would have taken the stand. Kind of makes the Fifth Amendment pointless if the jury deliberates with this in mind.

His crime was particularly brutal:

On March 10, 2003, Mr. Wilson killed Detective Andrews, 34, and Detective Nemorin, 36, who were participating in a sting operation to buy an illegal gun. He shot each once in the back of the head at point-blank range on a secluded street on Staten Island.

Prosecutors would paint a remorseless picture of Wilson:

Prosecutors argued that prison alone would not do. The prosecutors showed a dramatic video of several guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn storming into a recreation pen to retrieve Mr. Wilson, who had refused to be handcuffed. When the guards emerged from the pen with Mr. Wilson, he smiled.

One of their witnesses described seeing a guard, Nancy Gonzalez, walk away from Mr. Wilson’s cell one day, leaving him there with his pants down and his genitals exposed. Mr. Wilson had several sexual encounters with Ms. Gonzalez, fathering a child, Justus, who was born in March.

The jury, in considering mitigating factors, including

Mr. Wilson’s difficult childhood, during which he shuttled between relatives as his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, was often absent. He spent years in an overcrowded and squalid home, where the adults who influenced him were criminals.

Life in prison was punishment enough, Mr. Wilson’s lawyers argued, for someone who never really had a chance.

This was a very emotional trial for all involved in New York. Read more about it here, thanks to Mosi Secret of the New York Times.

Death Penalty Not Worth the Economic–or Moral–Cost to Society

While one can argue for or against the death penalty on purely moral grounds (“eye for an eye” misinterpretation of a bible quote versus only God should put people to death), from a legal standpoint the arguments should focus on whether it performs any sort of positive for the criminal justice system (deterrent affect on crime) and whether or not it is an economically sound program. In both of these situations, there are few positives.

The state of the death penalty in America (courtesy of The Economist)
The state of the death penalty in America (courtesy of The Economist)

Only two states have yet to put a man to death since the United States Supreme Court provided a constitutional death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia (U.S. 1976): Kansas and New Hampshire. Kansas has an opportunity to revisit their dusty capital punishment regime in a recent case involving convicted murderer Kyle Flack. While there are two camps to this argument, some evidence should stand out:

In 2003, a legislative audit examined the state’s death penalty expenses in the previous decade. Kansas, the audit found, had spent or would spend almost $20 million on its 14 death penalty cases, including cases where the death penalty was sought but not granted.

With a punishment that’s so empirically unproductive for the criminal justice system, one has to wonder why so many citizens–especially those who claim to be conservative–would support such a penalty.

Other experts dispute his conclusion. The Kansas murder rate is 3.5 per 100,000 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In Missouri, it’s 7 murders per 100,000. Both have the death penalty, but only Missouri has carried it out in recent years.

Iowa has no death penalty. Its murder rate is 1.3 per 100,000 people.

We’ve beaten this dead horse enough, but the evidence is glaring. I hope the sovereign states continue to excise the death penalty from their law books. It’s time for legislators to take some economic–and moral–responsibility here and get rid of capital punishment. Quotes courtesy of The Kansas City Star, Dave Helling, The Kansas Death Penalty Has Cobwebs, May 17, 2013. For the original post of the above graphic, visit The Economist.