Marquette Warrior: Death Penalty Appeals Rarely Show Error

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Death Penalty Appeals Rarely Show Error

One of the mantras of the anti-death penalty crowd is the claim that murder trials where execution is at stake are rife with procedural errors. One study, trumpeted on the front page of the New York Times, claimed that 68% of all death penalty cases were overturned on appeal.

We never thought that statistic proved much other than that liberal activist judges are numerous on the courts that hear such appeals.

But now it turns out that that number is entirely bogus.
WASHINGTON — Death-sentence appeals take too long, traumatize victims’ families and burden states with millions in extra costs for housing convicted killers, a draft of a new study commissioned by the Justice Department shows.

The study also found that death penalty cases are not hopelessly flawed by errors, as opponents of capital punishment have charged.

The study, which reviewed state death sentences issued in the 1990s, found that 26% were reversed during the first level of the appeals process. Most of those “direct appeals” were rejected because of sentencing errors. Some of the death sentences were later reinstated.

In only 11% of those cases did the appeals court find problems with the underlying murder convictions, says the unreleased study by Barry Latzer and James Cauthen, professors at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

USA TODAY obtained a draft of the study.

The study challenges a 2000 report that concluded the capital punishment system is “broken” because 68% of all death penalty cases from 1973 to 1995 were eventually overturned. The report, by a team led by Columbia University law professor and death penalty foe James Liebman, also found 41% of cases were reversed during direct appeals.

The Liebman study provided a false picture of the death penalty because it included many cases from the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. Supreme Court rewrote death penalty rules and caused many sentences to be reversed, the Justice Department’s report says.

Latzer and Cauthen tracked 1,676 death sentences issued in 14 “representative” states from 1992 through 2002.
Anti-death penalty activists specialize in bogus statistics, the most famous of which is the claim that 100+ innocent people have been put on death row since 1973.

People who have looked at the list in detail have determined that only about a third of the people on the list actually didn’t commit the murder for which they were convicted. The rest did do the murder, and got off on procedural grounds.

The anti-death penalty activists, like (say) global warming activists, want very much for you to accept their position, and aren’t excessively scrupulous about telling the precise truth. Or indeed, even a rough approximation of the truth.

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