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Wrongful Use Or Threat Of Death Penalty Involved In Over 10% Of 2023 Exonerations


The pursuit or threatened use of the death penalty by police or prosecutors led to the wrongful murder convictions of at least seventeen innocent people who were exonerated in 2023 — constituting more than 11% of the 153 exonerations recorded nationwide by the National Registry in 2023 — according to a review of data by the Death Penalty Policy Project.


The damage police or prosecutors threatening defendants or witnesses with the death penalty extended far beyond just wrongful capital convictions, writes Robert Dunham, executive director of the organization. While four of the exonerees had been sentenced to death, thirteen others received life sentences or terms of imprisonment ranging from 27 to 90 years.


“The misuse of the death penalty as an interrogation and plea bargaining tool coerces innocent people into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit to avoid the threat of execution,” Dunham writes. “In addition, suspects — both innocent and guilty — who are threatened with the death penalty if they do not cooperate with law enforcement provide false testimony that sends innocent people to jail, often for decades.”


According to the analysis, just five counties around the country accounted for 15 of the 19 exonerations linked to wrongful threat or pursuit of the death penalty — Cook County (Chicago), four from Philadelphia, two from Orleans Parish (New Orleans), and one each from Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) and Oklahoma County (Oklahoma City). Those counties have “long histories of abusive police and prosecutorial practices,” Dunham writes.   Collectively, they account for 40 of the 190 death-row exonerations since states resumed capital punishment  in 1972, and misconduct by prosecutors in these counties had led to the reversals of 78 capital convictions or death sentences or the complete exoneration of wrongly convicted death row prisoners.   


A jurisdictions willingness to use the death penalty and the unreliability of its capital convictions and death sentences is “well established,” the report notes. 


“The 2023 exonerations provided additional evidence of one aspect of that relationship: the link between a county’s history of aggressive death penalty usage and systemic official misconduct.” 


Last years exonerations also illustrate the racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Sixteen of the exonerees (84.2%) were individuals of color: ten were Black (52.6%), six were Latinx (31.6%). Eleven of the 13 who were wrongfully capitally prosecuted were Black (9) or Latino (2). Three of the four who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die were defendants of color, two Black and one Latino.


The exonerees averaged 30.2 years between conviction and exoneration, collectively losing more than 570 years to the wrongful convictions, according to the report. 

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