Speed Reads

Crime and punishment

Study: One in 25 sentenced to death actually innocent

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Perhaps the biggest qualm people have with capital punishment is that it can wrongfully be applied to innocent people. So how often does that happen? About once per every 25 death sentences, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To arrive at that number, the authors started by noting that 1.6 percent of people put on death row since 1973 were later exonerated. But since many death row inmates have their sentences converted to life in prison, they no longer receive as vigilant of a review process that could determine their innocence, thus driving down the exoneration rate. So if everyone sentenced to death row stayed there, the authors estimated the exoneration rate would spike to "at least" 4.1 percent.

That said, the advent of DNA evidence may help curb wrongful executions going forward, bringing that estimated 4.1 figure down. And Americans are in general souring on capital punishment, while more states are ending the practice either by choice or due to a lack of execution drugs, all of which will result in fewer death sentences and thus, one hopes, fewer wrongful executions, too.