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Getting to Death: Fairness and Efficiency in the Processing and Conclusion of Death Penalty Cases After Furman, Final Technical Report

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2002
122 pages
This document discusses why the death penalty system makes so many mistakes, and how these mistakes might be prevented.
The hypothesis was that the more a jurisdiction used the death penalty relative to homicide rates, sentences would be found legally invalid and overturned. Error rates were computed within States from 1973, when capital punishment was reinstated in the United States following the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S.238(1972)), through 1995. Every death sentence imposed during the study period under a valid post-Furman capital statute was reviewed across three stages of appeal: direct appeal in State court, State post-conviction review in the State’s highest court, and Federal habeas corpus appeals. For each State and sentence year, reversal rates were computed at each stage, and a composite error rate across the three stages within years and again over time within States. Multivariate statistical methods were employed to identify factors that predict where and when death verdicts are more likely to be reversed based on serious error. It was concluded that heavy and indiscriminate use of the death penalty created a significantly higher risk that reversible mistakes will occur. The more often officials use the death penalty, the wider the range of crimes to which it is applied, and the more it is imposed for offenses that are not highly aggravated, the greater the risk that capital convictions and sentences will be seriously flawed. It was also concluded that the conditions pressuring States to overuse the death penalty and thus increase the risk of unreliability and error include race, politics, and poorly performing law enforcement systems. Error was also linked to overburdened and underfunded State courts. Policy options include limiting capital punishment to a small number of offenses, stopping the use of the death penalty, and limiting the death penalty to “the worst of the worst” cases. The reforms that might help to limit the death penalty to these cases include barring the death penalty for defendants with inherently extenuating conditions; making life imprisonment without parole an alternative; and insulating capital-sentencing and appellate judges from political pressure. 22 tables, 66 references, 2 appendices

Date Published: June 1, 2002