Are innocent people convicted of murder? Yes, though it is extremely rare. Have innocent people been executed? Not in modern times. But CBS’s Ransom continues the false claim innocent people are being executed in recent years in the US. Eric Beaumont (played by Luke Roberts), who had been an FBI agent a few years earlier, says that a couple of years after a man was executed for a brutal murder forensic evidence was discovered that showed he was innocent. In addition, this episode of Ransom is about another innocent man who was saved from execution with literally seconds to spare.
Here is an exchange that Dr. John Lott had on this issue with the Washington Post’s Radley Balko. The initial points in quotes are from Balko writing at the Post, with Lott’s responses below them,
‐“DNA testing has shown that the criminal justice system is flawed — more flawed than most of the public had probably thought. Lott tries to dismiss these concerns, and it’s here that his statistics really get screwy. . . . I don’t know where Lott gets the number 34. I can’t find it anywhere at the Innocence Project link he provides. The actual number of people convicted of murder who were later exonerated by DNA testing is 104.”
If someone has trouble finding a number, the easiest thing to do is to contact the person who provided the number. Balko had time to reach out to the Innocence Project to discuss my numbers, and he and I have e-mailed each other in the past. However, when writing this recent attack on me, he didn’t contact me before declaring that he couldn’t figure out where the number 34 came from.
Thirty-four is the number of people charged with the death penalty for murder who were later cleared because of DNA evidence. As to the source of the figure, it is right at the top of the page that I linked to, though it does require addition: “18 of the 316 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row. Another 16 were charged with capital crimes but not sentenced to death.” 34 = 18 + 16.
If you wanted to look at all murders, not just those where the death penalty was sought, the number of convictions reversed since 1989 is 53, not 104. Since then there have also been about 260,000 convictions for murder. Of course, it isn’t fair to compare the 53 reversals with all murder convictions, because DNA evidence wasn’t available to exonerate people in all cases.
Using the claim that DNA evidence is available for about 4.5 percent of murder cases, 53 exonerations out of 12,000 cases gives an error rate of 0.44 percent.
‐“Lott also mistakenly assumes that we’ve already reviewed all of those 12,000 murder cases for which DNA evidence was relevant. We haven’t. We continue to find new exonerations from years past.”
It is true that the DNA evidence in all 12,000 cases has not been examined, but that is misleading. First, very few of those convicted of murder even ask for their DNA evidence to be re-examined. Presumably they don’t ask because they know what the evidence will show.
Even more telling, only 5 of those 53 exonerations have been for convictions since 2000. The already small error rate has dropped dramatically.
But Balko is simply wrong when he writes: “Even Lott’s own 0.3 percent would represent 10 people. Maybe he’s comfortable with 10 innocent people getting executed.” All these numbers provided by Balko and myself are for convictions, not executions. There is no DNA evidence proving that the wrong person has ever been executed.
‐“A recent study by a group of researchers led by Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, conservatively estimated the figure at 4 percent for death-penalty cases. They estimate that it’s higher for non-capital murder cases.”
For other examples of media bias against guns, see here.
(Ransom: Stay of Execution, S3 E6, Saturday, March 30, 2019)