To the editors:
In his interesting article "Capital Blunder" (Reader 7/28) Donald Sevener cites an "extensive" study of capital cases by Professor Michael L. Radelet. Mr. Sevener tells us that Prof. Radelet concluded that an innocent person was convicted in 350 of these cases. This figure would be more meaningful if Mr. Sevener had specified the total number of cases Prof. Radelet studied. Can you or he give us that information?
James Cutler W. Farwell
Don Sevener replies:
Mr. Cutler raises a question that professors Michael L. Radelet of the University of Florida and Hugo A. Bedau of Tufts University do not answer, largely because the purpose of their research was not to determine the proportion of death-penalty cases in which erroneous convictions occurred, but to document as many instances of "miscarriages of justice," as their article in the Stanford Law Review was entitled, as they could find. They found 350, though they stress that their study most likely did not uncover the universe of wrongful convictions.
Of the 350 cases, 15 were in Illinois. In 139 cases, a death penalty was imposed, 6 of them in Illinois. Arkansas had the highest number of cases in which innocent defendants were convicted--52; Florida had the most instances, 19, in which a death penalty was imposed erroneously. The single greatest cause of a wrongful conviction was error attributed to a witness (perjury, for example, or mistaken identity). Police error accounted for 82 erroneous convictions and prosecutor error for 50. In 70 cases the researchers attributed the miscarriages of justice to a demand for conviction by community outrage.
Of the 350 defendants, 315 were released from prison after the truth was discovered--187 spent less than five years in prison, 65 spent between six and ten years incarcerated. Eight died while serving prison terms, and 24 were executed, none in Illinois. There were 22 "close calls" in which death sentences were almost carried out on innocent defendants, including one who was spared at the gallows, one who was strapped in the electric chair, and one who had his head shaved in preparation for electrocution.
Among the 15 Illinois cases of wrongful conviction was that of Lloyd Eldon Miller Jr., who was convicted in 1956 of the murder of a seven-year-old girl. After ten stays of execution--one of them within seven and a half hours of his scheduled death--an investigation cleared Miller of the crime. "Blood-stained" shorts, a key piece of evidence used by the prosecutor to win conviction, were found to contain only paint smears. Federal courts reversed Miller's conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court stated that "the prosecution deliberately misrepresented the truth." Miller served 11 years, three months in prison.