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States With Most Death Sentences More Likely to Overturn Verdicts

By Henry Weinstein
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- A disproportionately high percentage of death sentences tend to be reversed in states where death verdicts are rendered the most often, according to a comprehensive study to be released Monday.

All but one of the 10 states with the highest death-sentencing rates had overall reversal rates that exceeded 68 percent -- the national average -- according to the review of more than 5,000 capital cases covering a 23-year-period by Columbia University law Professor James S. Liebman, assisted by criminologists and statisticians.

“Heavy and indiscriminate use of the death penalty creates a high risk that mistakes will occur,” said Liebman, who has argued on behalf of defendants in several death penalty cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The study is being released at a time when support for capital punishment has diminished significantly in national polls, with legislation being introduced at the state and federal level to reform the death penalty process and even two Supreme Court justices -- Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- having recently expressed doubts about whether the process is working fairly.

In a speech last summer, O’Connor said, “if statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.” Ginsburg said last April that in dozens of instances where she has reviewed requests for stays of executions on the high court, she has yet to see one “in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has introduced a package of capital punishment reforms, says Liebman’s study shows that “the death penalty is riddled with errors and inconsistencies nationwide.”

“When the legal machinery of the death penalty is broken, practice does not make perfect,” said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Leahy, commenting on the study’s finding that states which render the most death verdicts per 1,000 homicides appear to be the most error-prone.