Study Says 25 Innocent People Were Executed in This Century

Times Staff Writer

At least 343 innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes in the United States since the turn of the century and 25 of them were executed, researchers say in a paper to be released today.

The Times obtained a copy of the three-year study, which is to be released by the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union at the national conference of the American Society of Criminology in San Diego.

It appears certain to fuel the controversy over capital punishment. Henry Schwarzschild, director of the project, called the findings “dramatic proof of the ongoing fallibility of our death-sentencing laws.”

Variety of Sources


The researchers, Professors Hugo Adam Bedau of Tufts University and Michael L. Radelet of the University of Florida, compiled the cases from a variety of sources, including law journals, court records, interviews with attorneys and newspapers. They called the 343 cases the most extensive compilation to date of cases in which defendants were found to have been erroneously convicted.

Analyzing data accompanying accounts of the cases they studied, the researchers cited numerous reasons for which convictions were judged in error, including confessions by others, valid alibis and prosecutor errors.

Interviewed by telephone from New York, Schwarzschild said it is a “logical certainty” that innocent people will be put to death “in a system that executes people.”

‘Better Judicial System’


But at the Justice Department, spokesman John Russell said the findings do not mean that the death penalty should be outlawed across-the-board. He said that the Reagan Administration advocates capital punishment for selected crimes that result in death, including treason, terrorism and kidnaping. Instead of outlawing the death penalty, Russell said, the country should strive toward a “better criminal judicial system.”

In a telephone interview Radelet said from his office in Gainesville, Fla., that he was surprised to find so many wrongful convictions on the books. He called the cases a “reminder that the expression ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ does not mean beyond any doubt.” The report said that 1,600 persons are now on Death Rows.

The researchers found that efforts of defense attorneys in the appeal courts led the way in uncovering evidence to correct erroneous convictions, with 147 such cases. The real culprit confessed in 39, and newspaper investigations resulted in 23 conviction corrections. The researchers attributed 10 corrections to “sheer luck.”

Critics’ Charge Discounted


Despite the fact that critics of the death penalty contend that minorities are disproportionately represented on Death Rows, Radelet said the study did not conclude that the justice system treated minorities unfairly.

The study excluded the numerous cases in which defendants gained reversals of their convictions because of trial errors.

Homicide represented the overwhelming number of cases, 315. Rape accounted for 24, and other crimes made up the remaining four cases. Arkansas, with 52, had the highest number of erroneous convictions, the researchers reported. California was third highest, with 24, behind New York’s 29.