Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death

11 Pages Posted: 2 May 2014 Last revised: 13 May 2014

Samuel R. Gross

University of Michigan Law School

Barbara O'Brien

Michigan State University - College of Law

Chen Hu

American College of Radiology

Edward Kennedy

University of Pennsylvania - Perelman School of Medicine

Date Written: March 25, 2014

Abstract

The rate of erroneous conviction of innocent criminal defendants is often described as not merely unknown but unknowable. There is no systematic method to determine the accuracy of a criminal conviction; if there were, these errors would not occur in the first place. As a result, very few false convictions are ever discovered, and those that are discovered are not representative of the group as a whole. In the United States, however, a high proportion of false convictions that do come to light and produce exonerations are concentrated among the tiny minority of cases in which defendants are sentenced to death. This makes it possible to use data on death row exonerations to estimate the overall rate of false conviction among death sentences. The high rate of exoneration among death-sentenced defendants appears to be driven by the threat of execution, but most death-sentenced defendants are removed from death row and resentenced to life imprisonment, after which the likelihood of exoneration drops sharply. We use survival analysis to model this effect, and estimate that if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1% would be exonerated. We conclude that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false conviction among death sentences in the United States.

Keywords: false convictions, wrongful convictions, exonerations, death penalty, capital punishment, survival analysis, statistics, criminal law

Suggested Citation

Gross, Samuel R. and O'Brien, Barbara and Hu, Chen and Kennedy, Edward, Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death (March 25, 2014). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 405; U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 14-011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2431520

Samuel R. Gross (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States
734-764-1519 (Phone)
734-764-8309 (Fax)

Barbara O'Brien

Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

Chen Hu

American College of Radiology ( email )

Reston, VA
United States

Edward Kennedy

University of Pennsylvania - Perelman School of Medicine ( email )

423 Guardian Drive
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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