Washington - The Washington Post June 13, 2000 - 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, Columbia University law professor James S. Liebman found that just 5 percent of the 5,760 inmates sentenced to death nationwide 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 defedants 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 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, Liebman's study is adding fuel to an already fiery debate about capital punishment nationwide. 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 this week, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) commuted a death sentence because he was not completely sure of Eugene Colvin-el's guilt.
"It's not just one case, it's not just one state. Error was found at epidemic levels across the country," 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 F. 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. Mistakes that are made by prosecutors and judges are caught," he said.
Dudley Sharp, a director of 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 overtuned, 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.
From the China Post, June 13, 2000)