Death penalty debate – more data points

Major Hasan’s acts at Fort Hood are quite appropriately being viewed as apt to impose a death penalty at his court-martial.  Based on what we are seeing and hearing there seems to be little doubt that the prosecution can gain a conviction (although an insanity defense is not out of the question).  Regardless, the events at Fort Hood are once again stirring the death penalty debate in general.  So here is a piece about death penalty case exonerations.

This empirical study examines for the first time how the criminal system in the United States handled the cases of people who were subsequently found innocent through postconviction DNA testing. The data collected tell the story of this unique group of exonerees, starting with their criminal trials, moving through levels of direct appeals and habeas corpus review, and ending with their eventual exonerations. Beginning with the trials of these exonerees, this study examines the leading types of evidence supporting their
wrongful convictions, which were erroneous eyewitness identifications, forensic evidence, informant testimony, and false confessions. Yet our system of criminal appeals and postconviction review poorly addressed factual deficiencies in these trials. Few exonerees brought claims regarding those facts or claims alleging their innocence. For those who did, hardly any claims were granted by courts. Far from recognizing innocence, courts often denied relief by finding errors to be harmless. Criminal appeals and postconviction proceedings brought before these exonerees proved their innocence using DNA testing yielded apparently high numbers of reversals—a 14% reversal rate.  However, that reversal rate was indistinguishable from the background reversal rates of comparable rape and murder convictions. Our system may produce high rates of reversible errors during rape and murder trials. Finally, even after DNA testing was available, many exonerees had difficulty securing
access to testing and ultimately receiving relief. These findings all demonstrate how our criminal system failed to effectively review unreliable factual evidence, and, as a result, misjudged innocence.

From the introduction:  Brandon L. Garrett, Judging Innocence, 108 Columbia L. Rev. 55 (2008).

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2 responses to “Death penalty debate – more data points”

  1. Peter E. Brownback III says:

    The study is interesting, but I am not convinced that it is particularly relevant to the court-martial process, because the issue of post-conviction DNA testing applies to cases in which there is some question as to the factual guilt of the accused.

    My knowledge of military death penalty cases is not exhaustive and I have not done any formal study on the matter. However, the question of factual guilt of the accused is rarely an issue, if it is ever an issue. Cases in which there might be such a question are generally disposed of by pre-referral determinations.

    Further, the complaint (Issue? Discovery? Allegations?) in the article about the failure of the appellate courts to deal favorably or properly with persons who have been sentenced to death can not reasonably be ascribed to the military appellate courts nor to CAAF. A question of factual guilt would be the subject of multiple appellate and post-trial hearings.

    To the best of your knowledge, have there been any post-conviction exonerations in military death penalty cases – limiting the term exonerations to an issue of factual guilt?

  2. Viking says:

    Thanks for the comment.
    No, there have not been exonerations of those convicted based on a factual sufficiency. The military cases have been reversed based on IAC or or significant legal error.

    I take your point, however, the interesting points for me relate more to the issues that arise in a trial that could cause a incorrect finding: reliance on eyewitness testimony, quality of investigations, those kinds of things. And these issues aren’t just relevant to death penalty cases.


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