On February 18, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) added 11 people to its innocence list, bringing to the number of wrongfully convicted individuals sentenced to death in the U.S. since 1973 to 185.
The new data demonstrate that for every eight people who have been put to death in the U.S. since executions resumed in the 1970s, one person who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death has been exonerated.
DPIC researched every death sentence in the U.S. since 1973 (more than 9,600 death sentences nationwide) and discovered 11 cases of exonerations that were not previously included on the innocence list.
“Everybody’s worst fear about capital punishment is that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and executed,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director.
“But the more we learn about what actually happens in these cases, the worse the problem gets. As long as the legal system involves humans, it is guaranteed to make mistakes. But most innocent people who are wrongfully convicted and sent to death row don’t get there by mistake. The data from these 185 exonerations shows that far more frequently, and particularly with people of color, innocent death row prisoners were convicted because of a combination of police or prosecutorial misconduct and perjury or other false testimony.” The data, Dunham said, “raises serious questions as to whether we can trust the government to fairly, honestly, and reliably carry out the death penalty.”
According to DPIC, of the 185 exonerations that have occurred since 1973, 69.1 percent (128) have included official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Official misconduct was much more likely in cases involving defendants of color, cases in which exonerations took two decades or more, and cases in which DNA evidence was a significant factor in proving innocence–all of which are also factors in the case of Pervis Payne.
In addition to the 185 individuals who have been exonerated, there are other individuals whose names may finally be added to the list as the fight to exonerate them continues, including two cases from Shelby County.
Pervis Payne, a Black man with intellectual disability, has maintained his innocence for over 30 years. He was convicted in Shelby County, which has a long history of lynchings and racial terror, after the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence and argued, without evidence, that Mr. Payne was a drug abusing superpredator looking to rape a white woman.
April Alley, the daughter of Sedley Alley, a man executed in 2006 after a court denied DNA testing based on a case that has since been overturned, is currently petitioning for posthumous DNA testing. Mr. Alley said that he was coerced into falsely confessing to a murder, which is supported by details in his statement that do not match the forensic evidence. An expert in false confessions has concluded that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false.
“The Death Penalty Information Center’s findings are alarming, but not surprising,” Christina Swarns, Executive Director of the Innocence Project, said. “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. The good news is that more Americans are now taking this issue seriously.”
Kirk Bloodsworth, Executive Director of Witness to Innocence and the first death-row survivor to be exonerated by DNA, said the addition of 11 new people to DPIC’s innocence list makes him certain that “innocent people are still on death row today.” He added, “with such a large number of mistakes uncovered, there’s no need to wonder anymore, we can also be sure that innocent people have been executed.”