Wrongful Convictions in Death Penalty Cases: Defining Innocence

Cathleen Burnett, University of Missouri - Kansas City

With the release of the 100th person wrongly convicted of capital murder, prisoner's claims of innocence become more compelling than ever before. Most analyses of systemic errors in the death penalty process have focused on actual innocence. However, the concept of innocence encompasses two additional dimensions: legal innocence and factual innocence. These legitimate concepts in legal doctrine pose challenges in capital trials wherein the defendant is "presumed guilty until proved innocent." It is argued that legal analysis must consider these alternative theories of innocence to unmask the fatal errors in death penalty cases. This paper presents the results of a study that examines all the clemency petitions of those executed in Missouri since the re-instatement of the death penalty in 1977. Clemency petitions allow the condemned to present the most persuasive, full and complete story to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Eighty-two percent of the Missouri execution roll had serious claims of innocence. Finally, unless this broader understanding of innocence is recognized in the public discourse, the magnitude of wrongful convictions will continue to be underestimated.

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Updated 05/20/2006