Capital Punishment

June 27, 2000

Capital punishment is in the news in a big way, and I suspect it will be a presidential issue that could affect the public's perception of George W. Bush. The reason for much of the attention stems from a report just published by James Liebman entitled A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995.

The report tracks every death sentence case that went through the legal system following the 1972 Supreme Court decision that re-instituted the death penalty. Of the 4,578 death sentences that were adjudicated completely, the study found serious error in an astonishing 68 percent of the cases!

Add this finding to the growing concerns raised in the media about the death penalty. News magazine cover stories talk about capital punishment and DNA testing. Governor George Ryan of Illinois has called for a moratorium. It seems nearly everyone is ready to re-evaluate capital punishment.

But not everyone. Law professor Paul Cassell writing in a recent Wall Street Journal argues that we are not executing the innocent. He says, "The 68% factoid, however, is quite deceptive. For starters, it has nothing to do with 'wrong man' mistakes--that is, cases in which an innocent person is convicted for a murder he did not commit. Indeed, missing from the media coverage was the most critical statistic: After reviewing 23 years of capital sentences, the study's authors (like other researchers) were unable to find a single case in which an innocent person was executed. Thus, the most important error rate--the rate of mistaken executions--is zero."

I talked with Professor Cassell yesterday by phone, and he is understandably inundated by media requests which he has had to turn down due to time constraints. But I hope he and others with helpful facts join the debate so we can think through this very important issue.

I'm Kerby Anderson of Probe Ministries, and that's my opinion.