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Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy

Miscarriages Of Justice

Of all the worries associated with the death penalty, probably none is more potent than the horrifying thought that an innocent person might be executed. Western civilization itself could be said to rest on two cases of execution of the innocent: the death of Socrates in Athens in 399 B.C. and the death of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem in A.D. 33. Death for witches is the most extreme case, for if witchcraft is impossible (even though belief in its efficacy remains widespread to this day in various parts of the world), then everyone burned at the stake or hanged for this crime was innocent.

There is no doubt, however, that scores of innocent defendants have been arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death—only to be saved (often literally at the last minute) because new evidence was discovered that persuaded an appellate court to overturn the sentence or convinced a governor to extend clemency. Virtually every American death penalty jurisdiction has at least one sobering story of this sort to tell. And there are scattered cases from the nineteenth century in which the state government, in the twentieth century, admitted to carrying out a wrongful execution. The Haymarket anarchists in Chicago a century ago was one such case; Governor John Peter Altgelt spared the lives of the three surviving defendants in 1893. The most recent, widely publicized, and flagrant example of this problem appeared in Illinois late in 1998: Between 1977 and 1988 in Illinois, almost as many death row inmates were released on grounds of their innocence (ten) as were executed (eleven).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCapital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy - The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982, Current Status, Capital Crimes, Public Opinion, Administration