What We Do and Don't Know: Systematic Reviews and Methods

Judith A. McDonald, Westfield State College

This research examines 213 death penalty cases, randomly selected from the years 1973 through 1991, as they proceed through the state and federal appeals process. The research provides a procedural history of death penalty appeals, from direct appeal to the state's highest court to the final writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than a "snapshot view". Cases were selected from judicial election states and non-judicial election states. Extensive information was gathered and analyzed, such as, relief grant rates by appellate courts, relief grant rates over time, outcomes of grants of relief, grants of relief overturned by higher courts, issues raised on appeals, reasons relief granted, number of state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus petitions filed, average time betweeen sentence, appeals and executions, and unanimity rates and dissent rates in capital and non-capital criminal cases. The study reveals that overall 56% of capital inmates were successful in obtaining relief from their initial conviction/or death sentence. A court of higher authority, however, overturned 15% of the grants of relief. Half of the states that require their supreme court justices to face judicial elections had supreme courts that reversed capital convictions and/or death sentences at a rate of 50% or higher. This finding casts incertitude on the argument that justices who face elections in states that clearly support the death penalty will be hesitant to overturn a capital defendant's conviction or sentence. Only 3 grants of relief were obtained on successive petitions. Finally, the data reveals that of the inmates who proceeded into federal habeas courts, 23% were "ultimately" successful in obtaining relief.

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Updated 05/20/2006