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A Broken System:
Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995

James S. Liebman
Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law
Columbia University School of Law
Jeffrey Fagan
Professor, Joseph Mailman School of Public Health
Visiting Professor, Columbia University School of Law

Valerie West
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Sociology
New York University

 

In 1991 the Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary asked Professor James Liebman of the Columbia University School of Law to calculate the frequency of relief in habeas corpus cases. In late 1995, the study was expanded from a single count of cases and their outcomes to a search for information that might help explain why relief is granted in so many capital cases.

No such undertaking had ever before been attempted.

It is important to note that Professor Liebman's work was begun nearly a decade before the current national debate on the death penalty, and his results would have appeared this spring, no matter what the results or public opinion of our capital punishment system.

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Full Report and Endnotes

Report - Part 1
Report - Part 2
Report - Part 3
Report - Part 4
Report - Part 5
Report - Part 6


Appendices

Appendices - Part 1
Appendices - Part 2
Appendices - Part 3
Appendices - Part 4
Appendices - Part 5
Appendices - Part 6
Appendices - Part 7


(Notes: You will need the Adobe Acrobat Reader to view or print the full report or appendices, which are in PDF format. The Appendices contain mathmatic/typographic symbols that may not display properly on computers that lack the fonts used to generate these symbols. We are currently working to convert these symbols into a unversally accessible format.)

Table of Contents

Executive Summary
Acknowledgements

  1. Introduction
  2. Summary of Central Findings
  3. Confirmation from a Parallel Study
  4. Implications of Central Findings
  5. The Capital Review Process
    1. First Inspection: State Direct Appeal
    2. Second Inspection: State Post-Conviction
    3. Third Inspection: Federal Habeas Corpus
  6. The Study
  7. The National Capital Punishment Report Card
    1. Capital-Sentencing History
    2. Sentences and Executions
    3. Error and Success Rates
    4. Length of Time of Review
    5. Capital-Sentencing and Execution Rates
    6. Demographic Factors
    7. Court Factors: The Context of State Court Decision Making
  8. State Comparisons
    1. Rates of Serious Error Found on State Direct Appeal
    2. Rates of Serious Error Found on State Post-Conviction
    3. Rates of Serious Error Found on State Direct Appeal and State Post-Conviction
    4. Rates of Serious Error Found on Federal Habeas Corpus
    5. Rates of Serious Error Found by State Versus Federal Courts
    6. Overall Rates of Error Found on State Direct Appeal, State Post-Conviction and Federal Habeas Corpus
    7. Length of Time of Review
    8. Capital-Sentencing and Execution Rates, and the Two Compared
    9. Demographic Factors
    10. Court Factors
  9. Federal Circuit Court and Regional Comparisons
  10. Conclusion: A Broken System; the Need for Research into Causes

End Notes Appendices

Appendix A:
State Capital Punishment Report Cards

(Note: You will need the Adobe Acrobat Reader to view or print the state/national report cards or Table 30, which are in PDF format.)

Description of Information in State Capital Punishment Report Cards


National Composite Capital Punishment Report Card


Table 30: State-by-State Comparisons of Direct Appeal, State Post-Conviction, and Federal Habeas Corpus Reversal
Rates and Overall Error Rates

Alabama Capital Punishment Report Card

Arizona Capital Punishment Report Card

Arkansas Capital Punishment Report Card

California Capital Punishment Report Card

Delaware Capital Punishment Report Card

Florida Capital Punishment Report Card

Georgia Capital Punishment Report Card

Idaho Capital Punishment Report Card

Illinois Capital Punishment Report Card

Indiana Capital Punishment Report Card

Kentucky Capital Punishment Report Card

Louisiana Capital Punishment Report Card

Maryland Capital Punishment Report Card

Mississippi Capital Punishment Report Card

Missouri Capital Punishment Report Card

Montana Capital Punishment Report Card

Nebraska Capital Punishment Report Card

Nevada Capital Punishment Report Card

North Carolina Capital Punishment Report Card

Oklahoma Capital Punishment Report Card

Pennsylvania Capital Punishment Report Card

South Carolina Capital Punishment Report Card

Tennessee Capital Punishment Report Card

Texas Capital Punishment Report Card

Utah Capital Punishment Report Card

Virginia Capital Punishment Report Card

Washington Capital Punishment Report Card

Wyoming Capital Punishment Report Card


Appendix B:
Federal Circuit Court and Regional Capital Punishment Report Cards
(available in PDF format)


Description of Information in Circuit and Regional Capital Punishment Report Cards

Third Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Fourth Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Fifth Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Sixth Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Seventh Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Eighth Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Ninth Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Tenth Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card
Eleventh Circuit Capital Punishment Report Card


Appendix C:
Incomplete List of Capital Judgments Reversed on State Post-Conviction or Related Types of Review
(available in PDF format)


Introduction and Key

Summary of National Composite Results

Alabama
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Idaho
Illinois
Indiana
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
Nevada
North Carolina
Oklahoma
Pennsylvania
South Carolina
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
Wyoming


Appendix D:
Examples of Serious Error Warranting Federal Habeas Corpus Relief


(Appendix D is also available in PDF format)


Appendix E:
Tables and Figures
(available in PDF format)

Table 1: Overall Error Rates and Percent Death Sentences Carried Out, by State, 1973-1995

Table 2: Death Row Population, Executions, and Percent Executed, 1973-1999

Table 3: State and Federal Reversals by Year, 1973-1995

Table 9: Overall Error Rates, by State, 1973-1995 Excluding State Post-Conviction

Figure 11: Combined Error Rates on State Direct Appeal and Federal Habeas, 1973-95

Table 11: Years from First Death Sentence to First Non-Consensual Execution, 1973-2000

Table 12: Average Years from Death Sentence to Execution, 1973-95

Table 13: Proportion of 1973-1995 Death Sentences Awaiting State Direct Review as of 1995

Table 14: Death Sentences Per 1,000 Homicides, 1973-1995

Table 15: Death Sentences Per 100,000 Population, 1973-1995

Table 16: Death Sentences Per 1,000 Prison Population, 1973-1995

Table 17: Non-Consensual Executions Per 1,000 Homicides, 1973-1995

Table 18: Non-Consensual Executions Per 100,000 Population, 1973-1995

Table 19: Non-Consensual Executions Per 1,000 Prison Population, 1973-1995

Table 20: Average Homicides Per 100,000 Population, 1973-1995

Table 21: Average Percent of Population that is Non-White, 1973-1995

Table 22: Index of Political Pressure on State Courts

Table 23: State Expenditures Per Capita on Courts, 1973-95

Table 24: State Court Criminal Cases Per 1,000 Population, 1973-95

Table 26: Death Sentences Per 100,000 Population by Region, 1973-1995

Table 27: Non-Consensual Executions Per 100,000 Population by Region, 1973-1995

Table 28: Percent of Death Sentences Carried Out (All Executions), 1973-1995

Table 29: Percent of Death Sentences Carried Out (Non-Consensual Executions), 1973-1995

Figure 36: Percent Death Sentences Carried Out (Non-Consensual Executions), 1973-1995

Corrections

Examples of Serious Error Warranting State Post-Conviction or Federal Habeas Corpus Relief; with Contact Information
This document was produced as a supplement to the original study and appendices.

All content 2000. James S. Liebman, Jeffrey Fagan, Valerie West.