1 in 25 Death Row inmates don’t belong there.

Or so says a new analysis published in Nature. That’s 4% of condemned people who would be exonerated given enough time:

Few convictions result in an exoneration, most of those convicted never manage to prove their innocence and many cases do not have their final outcomes recorded, so data are not available to researchers. Innocent people also frequently plead guilty in the hope of reducing their sentence, effectively eliminating themselves from any analysis. Therefore, quantifying exonerations is the only way to get a glimpse of the extent of wrongful convictions, says lead author Samuel Gross, a criminologist at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

Gross and his colleagues analysed the rate of exonerations among prisoners on death row, whose outcomes are carefully tracked by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington DC. In a previous report, the researchers found that less than 0.1% of prison sentences are death sentences, yet capital cases accounted for 12% of exonerations between 1989 and 2012. Gross attributes the disparity to the tendency of lawyers and courts to work harder to definitively determine guilt when a person’s life is on the line.

Furthermore, the researchers calculated that if all of those sentenced to death were kept on death row indefinitely without being executed, receiving a life sentence or dying of another cause, at least 4.1% would eventually be exonerated. That number still underestimates the rate of false convictions, Gross says, because many innocent people never manage to prove their innocence.


There seems to be a logical fallacy here (are guilty people ever “exonerated” by mistake or by outstanding lawyering?). Even if it’s only 2%, though, that’s 2% too many….

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