About Innocence

Shujaa and Phyllis

Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice at American University College of Law, Washington, DC

Since 1973, 154 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. On average, an exonerated death row survivor spends 9.8 years behind bars.

If the imposition of the death penalty is a grotesque contradiction in a nation founded on principles of justice, human rights, and civil liberties, it is even more appalling when death sentences are handed out to innocent citizens. The American criminal justice system is failing to protect innocent people from being wrongfully convicted and sent to death row.

For every nine prisoners executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one innocent person was condemned to die and later exonerated. How many other innocents still await execution or have already gone to their deaths?

The American criminal justice system provides no reliable safeguards against the execution of innocent people. The death penalty is riddled with fatal errors because of:

poor legal representation
racial prejudice
prosecutorial misconduct
the presentation of erroneous evidence
false confession
junk science
reliance on unreliable jailhouse snitches
eyewitness error

Once convicted, a death row prisoner faces enormous obstacles in convincing the courts that he or she is innocent.

Death penalty supporters contend that the release of so many innocent people from death row is evidence that “the system works,” and that new technologies and advancement in forensic sciences prevent irreversible mistakes from being made.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When death row prisoners are exonerated, it is almost always due to extrajudicial factors. Tireless work of dedicated attorneys or investigations by journalists and students get people exonerated, not the appeals process. Innocent people are freed from death row not because of the system, but in spite of it.

As long as the death penalty remains a part of the American justice system, innocent people will continue to be sentenced to death. Some will be executed. It is inevitable. Ultimately, the abolition of the death penalty is the only guaranteed protection against such tragic mistakes.

For more information about innocence, click on the links below from the Death Penalty Information Center:

List of Exonerations since 1973

Causes of Wrongful Convictions
A common misconception is that all exonerations happen because of DNA evidence or scientific breakthroughs (we call it the CSI Effect). Here, the Death Penalty Information Center breaks down the causes of wrongful convictions and includes a lot of useful links on them- from eyewitness errors to false confessions to jailhouse snitches.

Exonerations by State

Exonerations by Race
Death row exonerations broken down by race.

Cases of Probable Innocence
The Death Penalty Information Center has compiled a list of former prisoners who were released from death row based on strong evidence of their innocence, but who were not officially exonerated.

Executed Despite Doubts About Guilt
This list details cases of death row prisoners who were executed despite strong claims of innocence. The most famous of these is Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas.

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