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Study: U.S. capital punishment system flawed

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new academic study warns that "serious, reversible errors" in cases involving capital punishment are crippling the U.S. legal system.

The report, released Monday by a group of Columbia University law professors, updates a 2000 study that warned more than seven of every 10 death penalty cases between 1973 and 1995 were reversed because of errors made by judges, juries and prosecutors.

The professors said their study is not designed to present a moral argument for or against capital punishment. They said they're concerned about the failure of the current system to perform the way it should.

The latest study found a correlation between the number of cases eligible for the death penalty and the risk of legal mistakes.

"It puts you at very high risk of having high error rates," said study author and Columbia law professor James Liebman. "It also puts you at high risk of sentencing people to death who will later turn out to be innocent."

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The report cites political and social pressures to expand the use of the death penalty and notes that other factors can affect the outcome of capital cases, such as race and the quality of local law enforcement agencies.

The study also says that state courts are overworked -- and underfunded -- to the point they can no longer monitor the quality of cases passing through the system.

The study's key recommendation is that states should apply the death penalty less often. "If we are going to have the death penalty, it should be reserved for the worst of the worst," according to the study, which suggests a public consensus be found on crimes considered universally heinous to justify the taking of a life by the state.

Saying the U.S. legal system is collapsing under the weight of error-filled death penalty cases, the study also recommends the burden of proof in capital cases be increased to eliminate "any doubt" of guilt. The current standard requires that there be no "reasonable doubt."

The report said the death penalty should not be imposed on juveniles and defendants who are seriously mentally ill. And it urges that judges be required to inform juries that life without parole is a sentencing option.

The report concludes the "time is ripe to fix the death penalty, or if it can't be fixed, to end it."

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a public interest law organization, has disputed Liebman's central premise that errors are responsible for overturned sentences and calls the professor a longtime opponent of capital punishment.

"On Monday, February 11, another report is scheduled to be released by opponents of capital punishment, claiming to show that the system of capital trials is 'broken' because of the large number of verdicts reversed on appeal," the group said in a statement Friday.

"This study is a follow-up to a study released June 12, 2000, that received widespread criticism as not supporting its conclusions, stating its data in misleading ways, and, in some respects, simply dishonest."

In an interview, Liebman said the report was conducted fairly and addressed the issue of bias.

He stressed that the death penalty is a "very contentious" issue and said that if people with positions on the subject were disqualified from studying it, no one would be available to look into it.

"Everybody has a view on the death penalty," Liebman said.

He said he happens to be against the death penalty but pointed out that others on the study team support it.

"We go where the data takes us," he said.




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