Policy Issues

Innocence

The death penalty carries the inherent risk of executing an innocent person. Since 1973, more than 165 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated.

DPIC Database: Innocence Database

DPIC Database: Innocence Database

A Death Penalty Information Center database of every death-row exoneration since 1972.

DPIC Analysis: Causes of Wrongful Convictions

DPIC Analysis: Causes of Wrongful Convictions

The Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death Penalty Convictions: Official Misconduct and Perjury or False Accusation

Overview

Given the fallibility of human judgment, there has always been the danger that an execution could result in the killing of an innocent person. Nevertheless, when the U.S. Supreme Court held the administration of the death penalty to be unconstitutional in 1972, there was barely any mention of the issue of innocence in the nine opinions issued. Although mistakes were surely made in the past, the assumption prevailed that such cases were few and far between. Almost everyone on death row was surely guilty.

However, as federal courts began to more thoroughly review whether state criminal defendants were afforded their guaranteed rights to due process, errors and official misconduct began to regularly appear, requiring retrials. When defendants were now afforded more experienced counsel, with fairly selected juries, and were granted access to scientific testing, some were acquitted and released. Since 1973, 166 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges and set free.

At Issue

It is now clear that innocent defendants will be convicted and sentenced to death with some regularity as long as the death penalty exists. It is unlikely that the appeals process—which is mainly focused on legal errors and not on factual determinations—will catch all the mistakes. Reforms have been begrudgingly implemented, increasing both the costs and the time that the death penalty consumes, but have not been sufficient to overcome human error. The popularity and use of capital punishment have rapidly declined as the innocence issue has gained attention. The remaining question is how many innocent lives are worth sacrificing to preserve this punishment.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has led the way in highlighting the issue of innocence. Its list of exonerated individuals is presented in a searchable database, with links to more complete descriptions of each case. DPIC has issued a series of reports on this issue, collecting the latest information on why so many mistakes occur. It also follows the related questions of whether innocent individuals have already been executed and whether some defendants are in fact innocent, despite not being completely exonerated in the eyes of the law.


News & Developments


Nov 15, 2019

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Stays Execution of Rodney Reed

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the exe­cu­tion of Rodney Reed (pic­tured) on November 15, 2019, direct­ing the Bastrop County dis­trict court to review Reed’s claims that pros­e­cu­tors sup­pressed excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence and pres…