Wrongful Convictions in Capital Cases and the Legacy of Lynching

William M. Holmes, University of Massachusetts - Boston

Wrongful convictions in capital cases has sometimes been called "legalized lynching." This research examines whether there is an association between the use of capital punishment and a history of lynching for states in the continental U.S. It tests the hypotheses that capital punishment is used more often in states in which lynching was more prevalent and that wrongful convictions in such cases are more frequent in these states. Data are used from the Prisoners on Death Row series, 1972-1999, collected by the U.S. Department of Justice and archived in the National Criminal Justice Data Archive at the University of Michigan. Statistics on lynching aggregated by state are used from historical studies by the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other sources. Analysis of the data support the hypothesis that capital punishment is more likely to be legalized in states in which lynching was more prevalent. Capital punishment is not used at all in states with little or no history of lynching. Wrongful capital convictions in a state are also associated with a history of lynching. The rate of wrongful capital convictions is greater in states that have a stronger history of lynching. The results offer evidence that the prevalence of wrongful capital convictions is related to a state's history of lynching.

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Updated 05/20/2006