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Study Finds More Death Row Inmates Wrongfully Convicted

FILE - Activists protest the death penalty at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Jan. 12, 2021.
FILE - Activists protest the death penalty at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Jan. 12, 2021.

For every eight people executed in the United States since the 1970s, one person has been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated, underscoring the risk of innocent people suffering the ultimate punishment, a death penalty research group said Thursday.

In a new report, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) said its examination of every death sentence handed down since 1973 – more than 9,600 in all – revealed that 185 death row inmates had been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted, 11 more than previously known. There have been 1,532 executions in the United States since 1976.

“Everybody’s worst fear about capital punishment is that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and executed,” Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director, said in an interview. “Knowing how many people have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated is critical to our understanding of how great the risk is that innocent people will be executed.”

All but one of the 11 newly uncovered exonerations occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. The most recent dismissal came in 2002 when Andre Minnitt was acquitted after spending nearly a decade on death row for a triple murder in Arizona.

Reflecting the well-documented disproportionate impact of the death penalty on people of color, seven of the 11 are Black and one is Latino, according to Durham. A DPIC analysis of the 185 exonerations found that about 70% involved misconduct by police, prosecutors or other law-enforcement officials.

“That is even more likely to occur in cases involving innocent Black or Latino defendants,” Durham said.

Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project, a legal assistance organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, called the findings “alarming but not surprising.”

“Racism pervades every stage of the criminal legal system and sends far too many innocent people of color to prison and to the execution chamber,” Swarns said in a statement.

Death penalty opponents

The revelation that more innocent people than previously known came close to being executed is likely to give death penalty opponents fresh ammunition as they press the administration of President Joe Biden to impose a moratorium on capital punishment after an unprecedented 13 federal executions under former President Donald Trump.

Biden is the first American president to oppose the death penalty. As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged on his website to “work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example,” citing more than 160 exonerations.

In a February 9 letter to Biden, a coalition of more than 80 advocacy organizations urged him “to act on your promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system by immediately commuting the sentences of all individuals under federal sentence of death, and reinstating the federal moratorium on the use of the death penalty.”

Asked last month if Biden planned to halt capital punishment, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted the president’s opposition to the death penalty, saying she didn’t “have anything to preview for you in terms of what steps he may take.”

Public support dropping

While federal executions have effectively come to a halt since Biden took office last month, permanently ending the death penalty will require a congressional repeal, Durham said.

A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the United Nations, all but 20 of its 193 member states have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice. The U.S. is the only Western democracy that hasn’t ended the practice.

Most executions in the United States take place at the state level. However, with public support for executions dropping in recent decades, states are increasingly abandoning capital punishment. Earlier this month, Virginia lawmakers voted to end the death penalty, putting the commonwealth on track to become the 23rd state without capital punishment.