Monday, May 05, 2008

As execution dates resume, how many on Texas death row are likely innocent?

After a brief moratorium in 1922 when Texas shifted executions from the hangings at county jails to electrocution at the state prison in Huntsville, five men were executed on the first day capital punishment was reinstated. Texas won't reach that clip anytime soon, but the execution dates are being set so rapidly right now TDCJ hasn't had time yet to update its website.

CrimProf blog cites a New York Times article reporting that five Texans have received execution dates between June 3 (Derrick Sonnier) and August 20 (Denard Manns). Meanwhile, via Doc Berman I saw this AP story declaring that the "Mexican-born Texas prisoner whose death sentence set off an international dispute and a U.S. Supreme Court rebuke of the White House received an execution date Monday."

States are slowly but surely working through what the Baze case means for them, and Texas' Court of Criminal Appeals is expected to approve the state's procedures in some form or fashion in the coming weeks in the Chi case.

According to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice death row information website, Texas currently has 369 inmates on death row, and 405 have been killed by the state since 1982. Another 253 have actually left death row for a variety of reasons, including death by natural causes, murder by other inmates, a commuted sentence (often to life), and for a handful of prisoners, because their convictions were reversed.

(By comparison, "When capital punishment was declared 'cruel and unusual punishment' by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 29, 1972, there were 45 men on death row in Texas and 7 in county jails with a death sentence.")

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982, nine Texas death row inmates have walked away free men after a reversed conviction, and another whose conviction was reversed died in prison, according to these data. (Several more had convictions reversed but continued to serve time for other offenses.) Seeing that data, perhaps it's worthwhile to calculate a rough "innocence" rate.

Let's make a few conservative assumptions, for example, that only those ten reversed convictions were actually innocent people sent to death row. Let's also assume none of the executed people were innocent (something I personally don't believe). Leaving aside those whose appeals are still in progress, Texas has executed or removed from death row 658 people, at least ten of whom were innocent. That's a rate of 1.52%.

If those numbers hold up for the rest of the group, five or six people sitting on Texas' death row today are likely actually innocent people who've been wrongly convicted.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

This kind of anti-DP talking makes me think it's time to bring back old Sparky!

William said...

What would be stopping the state from making a minimum amount of evidence required to execute, I believe that would placate both sides, the people who favor the death penalty would still have it, and the people who are against it because it might kill innocent people.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"What would be stopping the state from making a minimum amount of evidence required to execute?"

Alas, William, I'm afraid the answer is people like the commenter at 7:28. Just the thought of killing innocent people makes them fantasize about the electric chair! ;)

That said, there are several reforms being passed in other states as a result of flaws demonstrated through DNA exonerations, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of them proposed and passed in Texas in the next session or two.

Whitsfoe said...

Well you know, with the technological advancement in DNA research, it makes me wonder who we wrongfully executed, the defendant or the prosecutor?

Look at the latest cases (i.e. rape) coming out of Dallas. You guys are too damn worried about your caseloads and clearing your dockets. But you have to clear them don’t you? Just gotta get that done – regardless who shot who.

Going to fill that dumping ground?

You’re DPD found one of its own IN THEIR OWN RANKS who was corrupt. Welcome to the Pokey, Smokey…
DNA technology is telling the truth. You guys ever considered that? Maybe someday you’ll be a victim of your own practices and like your buddy in blue, in Dallas, will face what’s true.

And Toby (at the Dallas D.A.’s Office back then), you sent many. Think again.

Anonymous said...

It's more like 15 to 20 innocent sitting on TX death row and that's a conservative estimate...

Anonymous said...

Whitsfoe, I didn't know you were a poet! Old Salty

Jamie said...

That innocents have been released from death row proves the obvious: the system works.

Therefore the number of innocents that will be executed is zero.

Geeze, I hate it when people don't understand basic statistics.

sunray's wench said...

Until people are prosecuted for witholding evidence (on either side), and re-trials cease to be heard by the original presiding judge, I really dont see how you can stop misconvictions from happening.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that convicts sentenced to death get better legal representation, automatic free appeals and generally a higher level of scrutiny of their conviction all the way up the both the state and federal court systems. Thats before you throw in help from all the "innocence project" and related advocacy groups. So yes it is possible that all of the innocent people have been removed from death row so, if you want to find innocents, maybe start looking at the people NOT on death row, for their cases have not received near the level of scrutiny.

Don't forget that all released convicts are not necessarily innocent of the crime. There is a big difference between actual innocence and finding the evidence legally insufficient to support the conviction.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think Jamie was probably being facetious, 5:54, he appears to be doing his best John Bradley impression.

I mainly thought this data was interesting because of the research Scalia cited recently saying the innocence rate was .027%. But only looking at DP cases in Texas - where you're right representation is better and innocence more likely to be proven - and using what I think are very conservative assumptions, the rate of innocent people sent to Texas death row is more than 56 times that number! And that's in cases that receive the most scrutiny, so one would guess the overall error rate might be even higher.

Anonymous said...

Here is a simple idea that everyone should be able to support no matter how you feel about the death penalty:

Only defendants found guilty "beyond a shadow of a doubt" should be eligible for the death penalty. The reasonable doubt standard would remain in place for other crimes.

Anonymous said...

These folks on death row were put there by a jury of their peers who found "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the perp committed the crime. I know you libs don't like the death penalty and grasp at every straw to keep people from being executed whether the be guilty or not. We have appeals courts in this state to deal with perps who feel they were unduly convicted. Where in the Hell did this 0.27 number come from and how scientific is it? If you are looking for a 100% tried and true method of determining guilt, it doesn't exist, IMO.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The .027% number was cited by Antonin Scalia a couple of years ago. The link I provided above is to blog of the DA who calculated it. And here's a recent NY Times article discussing the stat.

As for the comment, "you libs don't like the death penalty and grasp at every straw to keep people from being executed whether the be guilty or not," that's pure nonsense.

Read this post again closely. Nowhere does it state any fundamental opposition to capital punishment. It interrogates the question of how many people on death row might be innocent, providing a conservative estimate that abolitionists (see the comment at 8:32) probably dispute. This "whether they're guilty or not" garbage says more about the limits of your own imagination than the motives of those your criticize.

My personal view is that some people need killing, but that proven systemic flaws that generate high error rates make it irresponsible to use it widely without correcting them, as William's comment (#2) implies.

Require corroboration for victim or eyewitness testimony, disallow testimony by jailhouse snitches, update eyewitness ID procedures, allow cross examination of crime lab reports (or pay for defense experts), penalize prosecutors for Brady violations, etc., and with each new innocence reform I'd become more comfortable the state is always killing the right person. Right now though, given that many who work in the system are in denial over these flaws and the Court of Criminal Appeals rubber stamps most convictions, I don't personally believe there are sufficient checks and balances in place to trust the state with this most grave decision.

Anonymous said...

Requiring more strict rules of evidence would only be OK if the state gets another bite at the apple without double jeopardy.

What I mean is, the State puts on its "DP Restricted" evidence and then the jury deliberates. If they find not guilty the State presents all the evendence that is normally admissible and the jury deliberates guilt a second time, but now the DP is off the table.

Do you think people would be happy with that?

rage said...

Hell, 20% of the death penalty cases in the country come from Harris County alone, where they knowingly used fabricated crime lab evidence and have resisted every attempt at cleaning up the faulty convictions ever since. I'd bet the innocence rate is far higher than that in Texas due to Harris County pissing in the pool alone..

rage said...

10:01, that doesn't make too much sense.

besides, the rules of evidence and procedure are strict enough, the problem is getting judges and prosecutors to follow the law and apply it fairly to both sides.

Anonymous said...

Sure it makes sense if the rules of evidence are changed as per Grit's suggestion at 8:58 AM.


Otherwise you'll have killers that are guilty of the deed walk free because an outraged prosecutore went for the death penalty when his admissible evidence was only good for life in prision.


The other way to do it is to ask the jury: "Considering A and B, but ignoring C, does the defendant get the needle?" The condemned would rightly argue that it was impossible to ignore C.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Some of those things, though, 11:12, convict people of non-capital crimes, too. Most of the DNA exonerations were not in capital cases. I'd rather see good evidence required for all cases. E.g., if you begin using double-blind sequential photo lineups, why just do it for capital murder? Ditto for corroborating snitch testimony. In some cases, IMO, these exonerations have exposed flaws that likely impacted MANY other cases where there was no DNA or indisputable exonerating evidence, so the best solution is to fix the procedural flaws that appear to most often cause wrongful convictions.

rage said...

That's not a change in the rules of evidence, it's a change in criminal procedure.

rage said...

That was for anon, Grits, not you.

Fiftycal said...

Ah, statistics. "1.46%" of 437 MIGHT be not guilty. Were any of them tried by Henry Wade? How about the killer of the Austin Cop from 30+ years ago? We know beyond a SHADOW of a doubt the guy shot a cop thru the back of the Mustang he was riding in with a REAL AK-47. But he has been on death row and had the death penalty "reviewed", what, 4 times? There is a reason for the jury system. It's called JUSTICE!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, fiftycal, the 1.52% is how many sent to death row who WERE later found to be not guilty, not who "might" be. And the problem with getting rid of those extra DP appeals you dislike is precisely that, without them, in all those cases Texas would have executed an innocent person and let a guilty one go free. Where's the justice in that?