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Death penalty is the legal infliction of death sentence to convicted offenders through various brutal and severe ways (Bohm, 2011). These brutal lawful ways include hanging from the neck, lethal injection, gas chambers, firing squad, electrocution, and guillotine. Death penalty is also called capital punishment (Bohm, 2011). The execution decision is in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and its judges (Koch, Wark, & Galliher, 2012). However, based on various reasons, innocent people can be charged with capital offences leading to death penalty. The foregoing circumstances are the focus of this paper that seeks to explore the whole complex issue of death penalty for wrongful convictions.

Justification of the Study. The fundamental principle of the United State Constitution on justice indicates that punishment should be proportionate to the crime committed. However, in the recent past, research showed that many defendants whose cases do not justifiably warrant death sentence have been wrongfully convicted (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). It is therefore imperative to explore the factors that render one vulnerable to death penalty for wrongful convictions and find possible remedies for this rather unfortunate state. In this respect, exoneration of capital criminal offenders based on scientific DNA testing is a focus of the study. Many innocent offenders who have been executed or waiting for their execution have been proved innocent by DNA tests and results (Koch et al., 2012).

Execution of the innocent has attracted a lot of controversial and heated debate in the U.S, with many Congressmen supporting its abolition. Religious movement and anti-death penalty movements are also pushing the government to abolish it. The controversies and issues surrounding death penalty for wrongful conviction thus make it a ripe field for further study.

What Crimes Warrant Death Penalty?

The death penalty crimes vary from one state to another. There is thus no clear agreement on which crimes warrant death penalty as it also depends on the religion and culture of a given society. In some societies, death sentence is considered a punishment to offenders who have committed capital crimes, such as planned murder, treason, espionage, and terrorism (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). Murder is the unlawful act of depriving someone the right to life. Treason is the crime that covers extreme acts against the state. This is when an offender (traitor) helps the foreign country to fight against his/her own country. Espionage is the illegal act of obtaining confidential information from the information holder (country). Terrorism is the unlawful act or attempt of mass killing (Hood & Hoyle, 2008).

In some countries, sexual criminal offenses are treated in the same way as capital offenses warranting death penalty. Such sexual offenses include rape, adultery, sodomy, and incest. These crimes attract death penalty for the offender. In most Islamic Nations, crimes like apostasy are punished by death penalty. In China, and many other nations, drug trafficking and human trafficking may also be punished by execution (Koch et al., 2012).

Who Are Vulnerable to Death Penalty for Wrongful Convictions?

Poor defendants are most likely to suffer from wrongful conviction. This is partly because poor defendants find it difficult to hire experienced and competent lawyers to represent their interests and defend their rights in court. This category of suspects often fails to convince judges appropriately in order for the judgments to be made fairly. On the other hand, rich defendants might use their resources to influence the court ruling on their favor through bribes (Koch et al., 2012).

Crowded courts with many pending cases give a leeway for diversion of justice. Defendants whose cases are lying in these courts are likely to face wrongful convictions. This is because judges are likely to rush over the cases rather than doing thorough research and critically investigating the evidences that the prosecutors present to the court (Koch et al., 2012).

Wrongful convictions have been associated with race. In a study conducted by Koch et al. (2012), the researcher looked at the factors that lead to death penalty for wrongful convictions. The independent variables here was race while the dependent variable was death penalty for wrongful convictions. Descriptive statistics was used to present the findings of the study while inferential statistics was used to measure and explain the relationship between race and death penalty and wrongful convictions. In particular, Pearson’s coefficient of correlation was used by the researchers. The results of the study showed that the representatives of racial minorities were at risk of facing death penalty for wrongful convictions (Koch et al., 2012). However, this study might have ignored some of the confounding variables that could also contribute to wrongful convictions such as false confessions and witnesses by the prosecutor or the complainants.

Studies done by David Baldus and Jeffrey Pokorak (law professors) and studies conducted at St. Mary’s University Law School in Texas showed that the application of the death penalty in U.S totally depends on race. About 43% percent of the total execution since 1976 involves black Americans (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). In addition, about 55% of offenders that await executions are blacks. Of all criminal capital cases, 80% have been committed by whites, but since death penalty is racially skewed, higher percentage of these cases are linked to blacks (Koch et al., 2012). As a result, blacks end up being executed through death penalty for wrongful convictions more than the whites. Furthermore, research shows that 98% of whites are the decision makers in death penalties compared to only 1% of blacks (Koch et al., 2012).

People suffering from mental retardation are one more group vulnerable to death penalty for wrongful convictions. There have been debates on whether or not mentally ill persons should be exposed to cruel and unusual punishment. Despite the fact people have come out to condemn the execution of the insane and have even advocated its prohibition by the international law, some courts still practice it (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). Mental illness is defined as any medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, and daily functioning. Mentally retarded persons might be executed since they cannot make rational decisions. Hood & Hoyle (2008) cited that more than 60 people with mental illnesses have gone through executions in the United States since 1983 and about 10% are serving death sentence in U.S prisons. Robert Moorman, Edwin Turner, and Daniel Lee Bedford among others were executed despite their mental illnesses in Arizona in Feb 29th 2012, (Case number AP, 2/29/12), Mississippi Feb 8th 2012 and in Ohio Feb 17th 2011 (Case number AP, 5/17/11) respectively (Koch et al., 2012).

What Are the Justifications of Death Penalty?

Those who support the death penalty as the only way to punish capital crime offenders argue that it is the only punishment that is proportionate to premeditated murder and other capital crimes (Bohm, 2011). Before raising the eyebrows on the imposition of the execution, t the constitutionality of the death penalty should first be considered. The constitution envisions the chances of using brutal death punishment by the government or the state. This is well stated in both Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution (Bohm, 2011). The punishment is always justified by the nature of the crime committed. Therefore, if a capital crime offender suffers as a result of the penalty, such suffering is justified.

It is justifiable that individuals executed are further prevented from inflicting pain and suffering on the innocent members of the society. Proponents argue that the life imprisonment will be better for any capital offense (Bohm, 2011).By choosing to kill, the offender is signing approval that he should be put to death if found guilty. Most US citizens agree that there should be some punishment for capital offences. When nothing else can serve as a punishment or when no any other punishment can be equated to certain heinous acts, t the death penalty is believed to serve better (Bohm, 2011). It also serves a deterrent function for prospective perpetrators of similar offenses. In the long run, it allegedly enhances improvement in the moral behavior of the society members.

What Are the Oppositions to Death Penalty?

The United States is the only country in the western industrialized world that still executes capital crime offenders through the death penalty. According to Koch et al. (2012), many countries have come up to oppose the death penalty since 1900. In the U.S, the death penalty gained popularity and escalated from 1970s to 1980s, with 80% in 1994. The subsequent Gallup poll indicates that the death penalty rate is decreasing gradually. In October 2005, for example, death penalty executions dropped from 80% to 64%. It further declined to 35% in 2011 (Koch et al., 2012).

The gradual decline in death penalty is attributed to anti-death penalty movements and movements of some religious bodies. These movements argue that the death penalty is racially skewed. When it comes to the execution, the lives of members of the poor black minority is less considered than the lives of the affluent whites. Since 1976, over 20% of black defendants executed were convicted by white judges (Koch et al., 2012).

The liberals claim that death penalty executions are class biased. The justice may be perverted and constitution manipulated by the jury after receiving a chunk of money from the rich as a bribe. In addition, the rich can hire competent lawyers who can easily give false evidence, as well as bring witnesses to the court to defend their clients, unlike the poor defendants (Koch et al., 2012).

The anti-execution movements and other liberal bodies condemn the death penalty because many people have been punished for wrongful convictions since its commencement in US back in 1976. However, they argue that the death penalty is not proportionate to the cases that attract it. Instead, brutal death should be replaced with an appropriate punishment (Koch et al., 2012). In addition to this, the death penalty is more expensive than jailing the defendant for life in prison (Koch et al., 2012). The anti-death penalty crusaders argue that politics, quality of legal counsel and jurisdiction have always been the determining factors rather than legal facts about the capital crimes that offenders commit.

Nearly all religious groups in U. S have stuck to their stand on the abolition of execution as it contradicts their faith. They argue for the idea that God does not permit killing. Therefore, they term it as an immoral and unreligious practice that fails to honor the sanctity and divinity of human life (Koch et al., 2012).

Specific Cases of Death Penalty for Wrongful Convictions. Throughout history, many inmates have been found to be innocent after their convictions and released from serving their entire term. Some have been executed regardless of many doubts surrounding their cases (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). More than 15 people who were charged with capital crimes that were under death penalty have been exonerated by DNA evidence and released in the United States. Other innocent people have been released on basis of prosecutorial misconduct or weak cases against them (Koch et al., 2012). Therefore, in this section I intend to cite specific examples of people who had been sentenced to death but later proved innocent.

In 1863, Chipita Rodriguez was accused of murdering a horse trader. She was hanged on the neck in San Patricio County. In 1985, when the case was reviewed, the legislature of the state of Texas passed a resolution to exonerate her, since there was no enough evidence to prove her guilty (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). In1984, Kirk Bloodsworth, a former marine was charged with rape and murder case. He was accused of raping and murdering Dawn Hamilton who by then had been 9 years old. The accused was linked to the crime by false testimony from five witnesses. Forensic evidence showed the link between the print of his shoes and the marks on Hamilton’s body (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). Later, in 1992 Kirk was proven innocent by the DNA scientific testing.

Another person on the death row who was later exonerated and released from the prison is Nathson “Nate” Field. Nate was accused of murdering the members of a rival gang in 1984. In 1998, it was discovered that the presiding judge had taken a bribe of $10,000 (Bohm, 2011). As a result, a new trial was opened to Nate but his co-defendant exchanged proofs against him for a lesser sentence. After staying in the prison for almost 25 years in the year 2009, Nate was given certificate of innocence after serving part of his death penalty for wrongful conviction (Bohm, 2011).

Thomas and Meeks Graffins also serve an example of suspects who were sentenced to death on the basis of wrongful convictions. Their charges were based on a murder case. They were accused of killing a man whom they claimed to have engaged in interracial marriage. The two were later proved innocent by the courts. The judges argued that the two were too poor to hire a proficient legal lawyer to represent them in the court. The charges were withdrawn from them 94 years later after their execution (Koch et al., 2012).

Wayne Felker was also accused of raping and murdering a Georgian (U.S) woman in 1981. But after thorough investigations, it was found that the evidence had been hidden by the prosecutor. Despite the discovery of the hidden evidence, the court sentenced him to death in 1996. 4 years later the case was reopened with the evidence of DNA scientific techniques. Both forensic and DNA pieces of evidence showed that Felker was wrongly charged with death sentence (Hood & Hoyle, 2008). In addition, class-based justice often results in injustice which is based on infringement of other people’s rights and freedoms. Such injustices may even cost one his/her life through death penalty for wrongful conviction (Bohm, 2011).

Causes and Remedies to Death Penalty for Wrongful Convictions. Mistaken eyewitness identification is the leading cause to the death penalty on the innocent offenders. It is estimated that over 75% of the wrongful conviction cases in U. S are a result of mistaken eyewitness identification (Koch et al., 2012). Over the past years, eyewitness testimony has been the most concrete and compelling evidence for court rulings. However, the fallibility of human memory and credibility of information given as a testimony is now questioned following recent studies (Koch et al., 2012). Studies have proven that eyewitness testimony is bound to be affected by age, race, bribes, and police force. The traditional way of photo line-ups on which eyewitness is shown at once around six photographs to identify the real suspect has been associated with errors. It has been shown that this kind of eyewitness is prone to “fillers”. Hence, people are fond of choosing people that look like the suspect even if in reality they do not (Koch et al., 2012).

Therefore, the eyewitness identification based on the line-up of six photos has been replaced with double-blind photo spread. In the new technique, the photos, one at a time, is shown to the eyewitness by the police officer who does not know who the suspect is (Koch et al., 2012). Besides, the a few new recommendations and standardized procedures have also been included in the constitution.

Evidence error is another cause of the death penalty for wrongful convictions. Many cases have been re-examined in the country after the discovery of serious problems in scientific forensic testing. These problems emerge due to improper collection, labeling or incomplete processing of a crime scene and careless contamination of evidence. The current and wide application of DNA testing credibility has been questioned (Koch et al., 2012).

Due to the rise in the number of innocent persons that are being executed, Federal State Forensic Science Commissions have been formed to correct the faults in the scientific DNA testing. The team is responsible for ensuring the standardized testing is done, training the lab personnel, and maintaining the preservation of scientific evidence (Koch et al., 2012).

False confession also contributes to the death penalty for wrongful convictions. Research has shown that mentally retarded people are at high risk of making untrue confession that can land them into execution. Interrogation tactics, interrogation when the defendant is exhausted, and threats from the prosecutor, all put the innocent at risk of giving false confessions (Bohm, 2011).False confessions that sometimes lead to wrongful convictions can be minimized by ensuring that the defendant is mentally and physically upright. The interrogation interview should be videotaped so that the tone of the interview is known (Bohm, 2011). The environment of the interview should be conducive to the suspect so that he/she may not make false confession.

Another aspect that can lead to death penalty for wrongful conviction is the inadequacy of legal representation. This is mainly applied to the poor defendants. Poor defendants might not get enough money to pay for competent lawyers who may legally represent them in courts. In addition to this, inadequate funding for defense services can also lead to execution of the innocent (Bohm, 2011). Inadequate legal representation and lack of funding for the defense services can be solved by helping the defendant financially. This would enable him/her cater for the court legal requirements and services (Bohm, 2011).

Prosecutorial and defense lawyer misconduct can also contribute to the death penalty for the innocent. The prosecutor may represent false documents as evidence, while and the defendant lawyers might fail to represent his/her client fully in court. These misconducts can be resolved by training both prosecutors and lawyers on the jury’s conduct (Koch et al., 2012).


It is hard to side with either supporters or critics of death penalty. Both sides present conclusive reasons as to why they are in favor of or against it. In the majority of capital criminal cases, death penalty is appropriate. But in some cases, the jury should consider replacing the death penalty with other forms of punishments. When the courts fail to act appropriately, the people will take justice in their own hands. This action undermines the validity of courts. In addition, many innocent people may be unlawfully executed by the mob. In order to limit the chances of death penalty for wrongful convictions, the judicial systems ought to stick to the principles of due process as a criminal justice perspective. This will enable the judges to cross-examine the evidence presented by the prosecutor and the complainants, and execute an accused through death penalty only after the proof of evidence has been done beyond any reasonable doubt.

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