1 in 25 Inmates Awaiting Death Penalty Were Wrongly Convicted, Study Says

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death row at San Quentin
A guard walks death row at California’s San Quentin State Prison.

Source: Carol Williams, “Death Penalty Is Considered a Boon by Some California Inmates,” www.lapd.com, Nov. 11, 2009

According to a new study, approximately 120 of the about 3,000 inmates on death row awaiting the death penalty in the United States were wrongfully convicted. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online on Apr. 28, 2014, estimated that 4.1% of death row sentences (1 in 25) were wrongful, a “conservative estimate” according to the authors and twice the number of death row cases that were actually overturned.

The authors noted, “Death sentences represent less than one-tenth of 1% of prison sentences in the United States, but they accounted for about 12% of known exonerations of innocent defendants from 1989 through early 2012, a disproportion of more than 130 to 1.” 

After a conviction, wrongful convictions are “extremely difficult to detect,” according to the authors, so the “majority of innocent defendants remain undetected.” The authors explained, innocent defendants “are sentenced, or resentenced to prison for life, and then forgotten.”

The study showed that between 1973 and Dec. 1, 2004, 12.6% of death row inmates were executed, 4% died on death row (not via execution), 46.1% were still on death row as of Dec. 1, 2004, 35.8% had their sentences changed and were no longer on death row, and 1.6% were exonerated.

According to the study’s estimates, between 1973 and 2004, 138 prisoners on death row were exonerated of their crimes and 340 potentially innocent prisoners were executed.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey, published on Mar. 28, 2014, found 55% of US adults support capital punishment for people convicted of murder, down from 62% in 2011 and 78% in 1996 while 37% opposed the death penalty in 2013, up from 31% in 2011 and 18% in 1996.

In the years the study examined, states with the death penalty increased from 12 in 1973 to an all-time high in 1995 with 38 states to 37 states in 2004. 32 states currently have the death penalty.


David Von Drehle, “More Innocent People on Death Row Than Estimated: Study,” www.time.com, Apr. 28, 2014

Samuel R. Gross, Barbara O’Brien, Chen Hu, and Edward H. Kennedy, “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death,” www.pnas.org, Apr. 28, 2014

Pew Research, “Shrinking Majority of Americans Support Death Penalty,” www.pewforum.org, Mar. 28, 2014

Ed Pilkington, “US Death Row Study: 4% of Defendants Sentenced to Die Are Innocent,” www.theguardian.com, Apr. 28, 2014