About Innocence

FEBRUARY 2021 SPECIAL REPORT
"The Innocence Epidemic"

A special Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) report revealed 11 new exonerations, bringing the total number of people who were innocent on death row to 186.

The report revealed that 69% of these cases included "official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials." These wrongful convictions were not mere accidents, but rather symptoms of a system wrought with abuse. DPIC found disturbing patterns of misconduct, perjury, and racial bias in death-row exonerations. 

WTI Executive Director and death row exoneree, Kirk Bloodsworth, said of the report,"with such a large number of mistakes uncovered, there's no need to wonder anymore, we can also be sure that innocent people have been executed.”

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Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976:

186 people from 28 states
have been exonerated from death row.

11.5 years is the average time a death row exoneree 
spent in prison for a crime they did not commit.

4.1% of people currently on death row are likely to be innocent according to the National Academy of Sciences.

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THE FLAWED DEATH PENALTY SYSTEM

 

The death penalty is riddled with fatal errors, and the American criminal justice system provides no reliable safeguards against the execution of innocent people.

 

Our members were convicted and placed on death row due to issues including:

  • eyewitness error

  • poor legal representation

  • racial prejudice

  • prosecutorial misconduct

  • the presentation of erroneous evidence

  • false confession

  • junk science

  • reliance on unreliable jailhouse snitches

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A cross-referenced report by the Death Penalty Information Center & National Registry of Exonerations revealed that for death row exonerations between April 2007 and 2017, every case involved some combination of official misconduct, perjury or false accusation, or false forensic evidence. 91.2% of the cases had multiple contributing factors and 47.1% had three or more contributing causes.

 

Research from the Death Penalty Information Center has shown that non-unanimous jury decisions have been involved in many cases of wrongful conviction that led to a death sentence. The data shows that one or more jurors had voted for life in more than 90% of the death-row exonerations in states, Alabama, Delaware, and Florida, that permitted judges to impose death sentences based on a jury’s non-unanimous sentencing recommendations or allowed them to override jury votes for life. To read the full report, click here.

To learn more about our members’ cases, reasons for wrongful incarceration, and exoneration stories, click here.

 
Racial bias

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The legal system is not race neutral and the "mistakes" that cause wrongful conviction in capital cases are not race neutral. The Death Penalty Information Center's 2021 Special Report: The Innocence Epidemic, found that:

 

Exoneration took significantly longer for Black defendants who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. DPIC found that it took Black death-row exonerees an average of 4.3 years longer to be cleared than their white counterparts. African Americans have accounted for 12 of the 13 post-Furman wrongful convictions that have taken 30 years or longer to exonerate.

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​Misconduct was a factor in more than three-quarters of cases in which Black defendants were exonerated (78.7%), more than two-thirds of cases involving Latinx defendants (68.8%), and 58.2 percent of cases with white defendants.

 

Two-thirds (125) of exoneration cases (67.6%) have included a false accusation or perjury. Like official misconduct, perjury or false accusation was more likely in cases involving defendants of color (70.7% of Black and 93.8% of Latinx exonerees).

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As of October 1, 2020, an already disproportionate 57.9% of those on death row in the United States or facing capital retrials or resentencing proceedings were people of color. 41.6% were Black; 13.4% were Latinx. An even more racially disproportionate 63.8% of wrongfully convicted death-row exonerees are people of color, 53.5% of whom are Black.

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PROVING INNOCENCE

Once convicted, a death row prisoner faces enormous obstacles in convincing the courts that he or she is innocent.

 

When they are able to prove their innocence and gain exonerated status, it is almost always due to extrajudicial factors -- the tireless work of journalists, students, non-profit organizations, or dedicated attorneys, not the appeals process.

 

Innocent people are freed from death row not because of the system, but in spite of it.

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One common misconception, nicknamed the “CSI Effect,” is that all exonerations happen because of DNA evidence or scientific breakthroughs. Though forensics does play a role in some exonerations, many death row survivors earn their freedom after false testimonies are recanted, police misconduct is exposed, withheld evidence is revealed, and more.

In fact, the system of DNA testing is flawed as well. A DPIC Special Report on innocence found that, "Misconduct was present in 85.7 percent of the cases in which DNA evidence contributed to proving a death-row exoneree’s innocence, suggesting that the denial of DNA testing or absence of DNA evidence has caused innocence to be undetected or contributed to the denial of relief in other innocence cases."

THE REALITY

The imposition of the death penalty is a grotesque human rights violation in a nation founded on the principles of justice and civil liberties. It is even more appalling that death sentences are handed out to innocent citizens.

 

As long as the death penalty remains a part of the American justice system, innocent people will continue to be sentenced to death, and some will be executed. It is inevitable.

It is impossible to know how many innocent people have been executed. The Death Penalty Information Center has compiled a list of those executed despite strong innocence claims.

 

Ultimately, the abolition of the death penalty is the only guaranteed protection against such tragic mistakes.

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“You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.”

- Freddie Lee Pitts, Florida death row exoneree

For more statistics and information, click here for a list of resources compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

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Active Innocence Cases

Learn more about active innocence cases, upcoming executions, and those executed despite strong innocence claims.

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