DPIC Analysis: Use or Threat of Death Penalty Implicated in 19 Exoneration Cases in 2019

Prosecutors or police used or threatened to use the death penalty as a coercive tool that led to or extended the wrongful convictions of at least nineteen people who were exonerated in 2019, a Death Penalty Information Center analysis of data from the National Registry of Exonerations has revealed. Nearly 95% of those cases also involved some other form of major misconduct, the DPIC analysis found.

DPIC’s special report, Use or Threat of Death Penalty Implicated in 19 Exoneration Cases in 2019, which the organization released on October 23, 2020, found that the use or threat of the death penalty was a factor in at least 19 of the 143 exonerations in the U.S. listed in the National Registry’s annual report on 2019 exonerations — more than 13% of the nation’s total. Collectively, these wrongful convictions caused exonerees nearly 500 years lost to wrongful incarceration.

Tracking the National Registry’s designation of factors contributing to the wrongful convictions (click here to enlarge graphic), the DPIC analysis found that Official Misconduct and/or Perjury or False Accusation was present in all but one of the wrongful incarcerations in which the death penalty was implicated (18 of 19, or 94.7%). Misconduct occurred with even greater frequency in the cases involving the use or threat of capital punishment than the already alarming rate at which misconduct historically occurs in exonerations. In its September 2020 report, Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, the National Registry of Exonerations found that misconduct was present in more than half of all exonerations since 1989, and rose to nearly three-quarters of the cases in which exonerees had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

“The numbers show that the death penalty has dangerous effects on the criminal justice system that go far beyond the already significant risk of executing innocent people,” said DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, who conducted the analysis. “Innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit to avoid the possibility of being executed. Suspects, both innocent and guilty, who are threatened with the death penalty if they do not cooperate with law enforcement provide false testimony that sends innocent people to jail, often for decades. The data suggest that the misuse of the death penalty as a coercive interrogation and plea-bargaining tool poses a far greater threat to the fair administration of the criminal laws than we had previously imagined.”

The 2019 Annual Report of the National Registry of Exonerations includes three former death-row prisoners who were exonerated in 2019: Clifford Williams, Jr.; Charles Ray Finch; and Christopher Williams. Collectively, they spent 111 years wrongfully incarcerated for murders they did not commit. However, DPIC’s review of the National Registry’s data identified at least sixteen other exonerees not sentenced to death who either were wrongfully convicted after they or others associated with the case were threatened with the death penalty or had their wrongful incarcerations extended because witnesses had been threatened with the death penalty if they testified for the defense.

In addition to the three death-row exonerations:

  • Prosecutors sought the death penalty against four other men. In three of the cases, jurors convicted them of lesser degrees of murder or rejected circumstances that would have made them eligible for the death penalty. In the fourth case, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty at the start of trial.
  • An 18-year-old was not capitally charged because of his age but was tried before a death-qualified jury because his co-defendant (who also was exonerated in 2019) was capitally tried.
  • Nine falsely confessed as a result of the death penalty. Six gave false confessions after law enforcement threatened them with the death penalty. One of them pled guilty to rape and murder to avoid the death penalty; the actual killer remained free and committed another rape and murder. Three falsely confessed to rape to avoid capital murder charges and then falsely implicated a fourth man (also exonerated in 2019) in the murder. A 16-year-old falsely confessed under pressure from his older brother so the brother would not face the death penalty, and then a prosecution witness who had been threatened with the death penalty falsely implicated the teen.
  • Three were convicted of murder after prosecutors presented false testimony from witnesses who had been threatened with the death penalty.
  • One had his exoneration obstructed when prosecutors threatened a post-conviction witness with the death penalty for admitting to the murder and then charged the witness with perjury for his truthful admission.

The Registry’s September report also found that government misconduct was more likely to occur in cases involving Black defendants. Among the 2,400 exonerations it examined, 57% of Black exonerees and 52% of white exonerees had been victims of police or prosecutorial misconduct. However, the report found, “this gap is much larger among exonerations for murder (78% to 64%) — especially those with death sentences (87% to 68%).” The 2019 exoneration cases in which police or prosecutors sought or threatened to use the death penalty provided further evidence of this disparity. DPIC found white exonerees were victims of misconduct 75% of the time (in 6 of 8 cases), while all eleven Black exonerees had been victims of misconduct.

The DPIC analysis found dramatic evidence of the impact of coercive effect of law enforcement threats to use the death penalty. The odds that Official Misconduct contributed to a wrongful conviction were 4.57 times greater when the death penalty was pursued or its use was threatened, as compared to the 2019 exonerations as a whole and increased more than seven-fold (7.32 times greater) in the death-penalty-implicated cases as compared to non-homicide exonerations. Compared to homicide exonerations as a whole, Official Misconduct was nearly twenty percent more likely (19.3%) to be present when a case involved wrongful use or threat of the death penalty and the odds that Official Misconduct contributed to a wrongful conviction were 2.83 times greater.

The pursuit or threatened use of the death penalty also strongly correlated with the presence of Perjury or False Accusation. The odds that a wrongful conviction was procured by such testimony more than doubled (2.2 times higher) in cases involving death-penalty threats and were nearly triple (2.98 times higher) than in non-homicide exonerations. Compared to homicide exonerations as a whole, Perjury or False Accusation was ten percent more likely to occur when law enforcement sought or threatened to use the death penalty and the odds that Perjury or False Accusation would be present as a factor were 1.67 times higher.

Although every type of error or misconduct was more likely to be present in exonerations involving the use or threat of the death penalty than in other exonerations, the two areas in which the differences were greatest were wrongful convictions in which prosecutors presented false or fabricated confessions or mistaken eyewitness identifications. False confessions were 3.26 times more likely to occur in a case in which prosecutors threatened to pursue the death penalty or police threatened suspects or witnesses with the death penalty (42.1% versus 12.9%). Mistaken Eyewitness Identifications were present in more than half of the cases in which prosecutors pursued or law enforcement threatened the use of the death penalty (11 of 19 cases, or 57.9%) and were nearly twice as likely to occur (1.94) in the death penalty cases than in other exoneration cases (37 of 124 cases, 29.8%).

Sources

Robert Dunham, DPIC Analysis: Use or Threat of Death Penalty Implicated in 19 Exoneration Cases in 2019, Death Penalty Information Center, October 23, 2020; Samuel R. Gross et al., Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, National Registry of Exonerations, September 15, 2020; National Registry of Exonerations, Annual Report, March 312020.