We know that more than 140 innocent people have been released from death rows across the United States in the past three and a half decades. But a big question has always remained: How many more innocent people are still sitting on death row?
A study published this week in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides at least part of the answer. According to this rigorous scientific study:
One out of every 25 death sentences in the U.S. is imposed on an innocent person.
This is the first study to use data on death row exonerations to estimate the overall rate of false conviction among death sentences. It was conducted by four researchers at the University of Michigan. Several independent experts have said that their method appears to be scientifically rigorous and valid.
According to the study:
- About 4 percent of death sentences result from false convictions.
- It is a statistical certainty that several of the 1,320 defendants executed since 1977, when the modern era of the death penalty began, were innocent.
- Many of the wrongly convicted will never be exonerated.
These statistics almost certainly hold true in North Carolina, where 153 men and women are on death row.
Seven death row inmates have been exonerated here in the modern era and, far from inspiring confidence, those cases have exposed widespread problems that have yet to be addressed in any systematic way: exculpatory evidence that was hidden by prosecutors and police, lying witnesses who were paid for their testimony.
More than 100 of N.C.’s death row inmates were tried before the law guaranteed them access to all the evidence in their cases — and at a time when there was no state agency to insure them an adequate defense.
There are many who won’t be able to prove their innocence because the evidence in their cases has been lost or destroyed. Look at Joseph Sledge, who spent more than 30 years in prison before his lawyers uncovered evidence that police and prosecutors said was lost.
It is now almost a statistical certainty: If we restart executions in North Carolina, we will kill an innocent person.