The Death Penalty

The Innocence Project supports a moratorium on capital punishment while the causes of wrongful convictions are fully identified and remedied.  This has been the Innocence Project’s position since our inception in 1992, and it is the same position the American Bar Association adopted more than a decade ago.

For more than 15 years, the Innocence Project has worked to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to protect the innocent and enhance law enforcement’s ability to identify the guilty. Our work has proven that innocent people are convicted of crimes they did not commit, and these exonerations illustrate the causes of wrongful convictions that must be remedied. These DNA exonerations are a window into the criminal justice system’s flaws: While DNA testing is an option in just a fraction of all criminal cases, the factors proven to cause wrongful convictions exist regardless of whether the case involves DNA. Specific to the death penalty, our work has shown that innocent people are sentenced to die. Of more than 300 people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, more than 25% were convicted of murder. Eighteen were sentenced to die; others were charged with capital murder but narrowly escaped the death penalty, and still others would likely have been charged with capital crimes if the death penalty had been in place at the time of their trials.  We have also worked on cases of people who were executed before DNA testing could be conducted to confirm guilt or prove innocence, and we are aware of several non-DNA cases where evidence of innocence surfaced after people were executed.

On the federal level and in every state that currently allows capital punishment, policymakers should enact moratoriums and engage experts from all aspects of the criminal justice system to better understand the causes of wrongful convictions and remedies that are proven to minimize the possibility of wrongful executions. Policymakers should then adopt and implement reforms that address all of the causes of wrongful conviction, assess the effectiveness of those reforms once they’re enacted, and continue refining policies to prevent wrongful convictions.  Only then can policymakers fully assess the remaining possibility that an innocent person might still be executed and whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in the jurisdiction.  However, if state legislators choose to consider a bill repealing the death penalty (rather than imposing a moratorium) the Innocence Project will support repeal legislation because it may be the only way to stop executions while the causes of wrongful convictions are remedied.

We understand and respect that many people and organizations have differing views about a number of issues surrounding the death penalty, including the morality of its use, the relative costs associated with it, and whether it has a deterrent effect. Our focus is on the risk of executing innocent people — and the need to reform the system to prevent all wrongful convictions, including those in capital cases.  The Innocence Project’s moratorium position is rooted in data about the causes of wrongful convictions and irrefutable proof that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to die.

Click here for background on cases of people who were sentenced to die and later exonerated through DNA testing.