Death penalty - are innocent people being executed in the USA?

Policy makers debating the future of capital punishment in the USA are trying to determine whether innocent persons have been sentenced to death.

Advocates of capital punishment argue there is no proof such miscarriages of justice have occurred since the Supreme Court radically revamped death-penalty procedures in 1976.

  • Researchers Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet claim they discovered 23 instances of wrongful executions between 1900 and 1986 - but only one of those executions occurred after 1976.

  • Stephen Markham and Paul Cassell, who were Justice Department lawyers during the Reagan administration, reviewed the actual transcripts for 13 of the 23 cases - every one since 1950, the year from which they could get original court records - and demonstrated that the alleged executed innocents were "guilty as sin."

  • Supporters of the death penalty argue that multiple appeals not only make executing the innocent more unlikely than ever, they make it hard to execute the clearly guilty.

  • It took Illinois 14 years to execute John Wayne Gacy - who had confessed to murdering 33 young men and whose guilt was never in doubt -- because his lawyers submitted 523 appeals, not one of which was based on a claim of innocence.

    Legal theorists contend that the case for capital punishment is stronger than ever today - now that DNA testing can virtually assure that the condemned is the perpetrator of the crime.

    Source: NCPA Policy Digest / Eugene H. Methvin (Reader's Digest), "Death Penalty Is Fairer Than Ever," Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2000 and NCPA Policy Digest.

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