New Innocence Study Reveals Deep Problems on Death Row

“The great majority of innocent people who are sentenced to death are never identified and freed,” so says University of Michigan Law School professor Samuel Gross, lead author of a study to account for those defendants who are innocent, yet not exonerated.

Gross and others published the article under the title “Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death” and it was released to the public on Monday. According to their findings, an estimated 4 percent of inmates receiving a death sentence or executed have actually been innocent. They estimate that with enough time and resources to review the innocence claims of inmates another 200 prisoners would have been freed over the thirty year period they studied (1974-2004).

One of the most interesting claims of the study concerns those who are not sentenced to death: The authors surmise that there is likely an even higher rate of innocence for this population, simply put, because the stakes are lowered when death is not sought. The authors put the matter starkly for the vast majority of innocent defendants who are neither executed nor exonerated: “They are sentenced, or resentenced to prison for life, and then forgotten.”

This study raises disturbing questions for Tennessee:  With our state fully complying with only seven of the 93 American Bar Association guidelines for a fair and accurate system and with four wrongfully convicted men now free after spending years on death row, how many more innocent people remain on Tennessee’s death row? Are any of the ten men that the state has scheduled to execute actually innocent? With this new evidence of the scope of our system’s dysfunction, how can we resume executions?


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