University of Michigan Death Penalty Study Alarming

As we wake up this morning to news of a botched execution in Oklahoma last night, maybe we can start a discussion over whether the death penalty works and whether we need to rethink whether we should execute inmates.  The Oklahoma execution in question involves Clayton Lockett who was convicted in 2000 of first degree murder, first degree rape, kidnapping and robbery as a result of a 1999 crime spree in Oklahoma.   Last night the State of Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett.  It appears as if something went wrong during the execution process resulting in Lockett convulsing in pain and muttering words indicating he was alive and suffering.  When it became obvious that something was wrong, the prison officials closed the curtain and continued with the execution.  A while later the spectators were informed that Lockett had died of a heart attack. Now Lockett may not be the most sympathetic example of what is wrong with the death penalty but they way this execution was carried out should spur a discussion about whether we still need the Death Penalty in this country.  The details of Lockett’s crimes are pretty horrific.  An argument can be made that Lockett’s suffering was nothing compared to the suffering of his victims, especially the woman that was murdered when she was buried alive by Lockett and his friends.  But what if innocent people are on death row and innocent people have been executed?

This week, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan, released a study which should concern everyone about whether innocent people are being executed.  The authors of the study reviewed the 7,482 death sentences imposed from 1973 to 2004.  Of those death sentences, 117 of those sentences have been reversed because the defendants were exonerated.  That number represents 1.6 percent of those sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 were wrongfully convicted.  The authors then take that number and apply a formula called “Survival Analysis” which is a formula used in medicine to determine the effectiveness of new medical treatments.  Based on that analysis, the researches of this study conclude that 4.1 percent of those sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 were wrongfully convicted.  That would be 200 more inmates than the 117 that have been officially exonerated.  The authors then reach several conclusions based on these figures that cannot be proven. For instance, they argue that one reason more inmates are not exonerated is that many of them win appeals which end up reducing their death sentence to life in prison which means that the effort to exonerate them slows down. While that may or may not be true there are some things about this article which should cause great concern to everyone.  Even if you assume that their 4.1% figure is faulty, then the 1.6 percent figure of inmates that have actually been exonerated is alarming in and of itself. While we cannot solve this issue in this article, maybe we can spur a debate which would lead to a more equitable and just way of dealing with the death penalty.

James Dimeas is an award winning criminal defense attorney and author with more than 24 years of experience aggressively representing his clients in criminal cases, including murder cases.  If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.

Additional Resources:

Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death, Samuel R. Ross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, Edward H. Kennedy, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, March 25, 2014.

One Execution Botched, Oklahoma Delays the Next, Erik Eckholm, The New York Times, April 29, 2014.

Botched Execution Could Slam Breaks on Death Penalty, Michael Winter, USA Today, April 30, 2014.