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WRONGFUL CAPITAL CONVICTIONS

Talia Roitberg Harmon and Diana Falco

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The execution of an innocent person may be one of the most compelling issues surrounding capital punishment. Since the Supreme Court ruled that “death is different” and irreversible (Woodson v. NC, 1976, p. 305), research and discussions on wrongful capital convictions has become a very timely and extremely important topic. Since 2000, the number of people who have been released from death row due to innocence has grown. This growth has been signifi cant over the last few decades. In fact, the most recent average suggests that there have been approximately 4.29 exonerations nationwide per year (www. deathpenaltyinfo.org, 1/3/17). Recent Gallup polls suggest that 60% of Americans currently support the death penalty (Gallup, 2017). This support has signifi cantly declined by around 20% from the high of 80% in the mid-1990s (Kirchmeier, 2002). Scholars have posited that much of this decline may be attribut- able to the issue of wrongful capital convictions (Baumgartner, De Boef, & Boydstun, 2008; Unnever & Cullen, 2005; Harmon, Besch, Amendola, & Pehrson, 2016). The media has taken notice of the issue and has publicized exoneration cases, especially the exceptionally dramatic cases involving DNA evidence (Aronson & Cole, 2009; Scheck, Neufeld, & Dwyer, 2000; Garrett, 2008). This chapter will begin with a discussion of the various defi nitions of wrongful convictions. Next, evidence will be presented regard- ing the extent of the problem in the context of exonerations and wrongful executions. Third, the main causes of wrongful convictions and factors that led to the discovery of errors will be presented. Finally, the impact the innocence issue has had on overall death penalty public opinion will be discussed.

Defi nitions of Wrongful Convictions

In their seminal research, Bedau and Radelet brought the innocence issue to light and sparked intense debate on the extent of the problem of wrongful capital convictions (Bedau & Radelet, 1987). Accord- ing to Radelet and Bedau, the most compelling defi nition of innocence involves the “factually inno- cent,” which are cases where the defendant was completely uninvolved in the crime or no crime actually occurred. Bedau and Radelet also included the legally innocent in their innocence defi nition. The legally innocent group included a relatively small number of cases where the defendant was later found to be NGRI (not guilty by reason of insanity) or to have acted in self-defense (Radelet & Bedau, 2014). Another larger group of innocence cases would include defendants who were guilty of murder but who were guilty of a lesser degree of murder and thus were not the “worst of the worst”: those who were convicted of capital murder but who really should have been convicted of a lesser degree of murder and not sentenced to death. Finally, Radelet and Bedau (2014) identify these various defi nitions and also include the innocent victims in the death row inmate’s family among ‘the innocent’.

 

 

Talia Roitberg Harmon and Diana Falco

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