Skip to main content

Why Innocent People are on Death Row

Ms. Giordano is a writer and public speaker who is interested in politics and history.

Why are innocent people on death row?

There are many cases of innocent people being executed in the U.S. There are many reasons why innocent people are on death row. One reason underlies all the others: Humans are imperfect.

Some of the prisoners on death row are innocent.

Some of the prisoners on death row are innocent.

Some people say we need the death penalty for reasons of justice and fairness. But, is the death penalty just and fair?

There are two broad issues that must be considered to determine the justness and fairness of the death penalty. They are (1) the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty and (2) the conviction of the innocent.

Why is the death penalty arbitrary?

There is a serious lack of fairness about who faces the death penalty and who does not.

Often the decision is arbitrary. There are no well-defined standards about when to seek and when not to seek the death penalty and who should make the determination. Prosecutors, judges, and juries all have too much discretion in this life and death decision.

We like to think that the death penalty is based on the severity of the crime and that it is only applied when a murder is particularly heinous. You have only to read the newspaper to see that this is not the case.

In actuality there are a number of extraneous factors that actually determine whether or not the accused faces the death penalty.


The race of the accused and the race of the victim both matter and both play a role. Here are some statistics.

If the victim is white, the death penalty is between 4 to 11 times more likely than if the victim is black.

If the accused is black, there is a four times greater incidence of asking for the death penalty.

If the accused is white and the victim is black, there is almost never a death penalty.

Black people are often excluded from juries, especially when the accused is black.

Social status

People with high social status are much less likely to get a death penalty. Case in point: O.J. Simpson—he was a black man accused of viciously murdering two white people with premeditation--yet the prosecutor did not ask for the death penalty. There can be no other reason than the fact that O.J. was a popular sports star.

High status people seldom face the death penalty. It is the poor and unknown who will be condemned to death.

Luck of the draw

Since there are no well defined standards about what is and what is not a capital crime, the accused might just be unlucky. It’s like some sort of lethal lottery. Some jurisdictions are just more prone to seek the death penalty than are others.

Scroll to Continue

You would be hard pressed to find someone to admit it, but cost can be a factor in the decision. If the jurisdiction feels that it can’t afford the extra costs associated with a death penalty trial, the prosecution may not ask for the death penalty.


Politics may be rampant. Does someone in the criminal justice system have a political agenda? Does he want to seem “tough on crime?” Well, too bad for the accused, because it is “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS.”

Our justice system is not always fair and just.

Our justice system is not always fair and just.

Why do innocent people get convicted?

Biased juries

If you oppose the death penalty, you can’t serve on a jury in a death penalty case. Consequently, the jury is biased. People who are in favor of the death penalty are more like to be the “law and order” types. They are more likely to believe authority figures. So the defendants who are facing the harshest penalty are the ones most likely to be convicted because of the inherent bias in the jury selection process.

We have to add racial prejudice to this. If a black person has an all white or predominantly white jury, he is more likely to be convicted. Even good people who want to be fair can’t help but be influenced by their prejudices, even if their prejudices are unconscious ones.

Whether or not someone gets convicted may be a matter of what kind of jury he gets. In the O.J Simpson trial, the trial was moved from the predominantly white area of Brentwood to a predominantly black area. The mostly black jury decided to “stick it to the man” or maybe they were just more likely to believe that the cops framed O.J. Either way, do you think O.J. would have been acquitted by a Brentwood jury? Whether he was innocent or guilty, he was lucky to get the jury he had. This jury was probably biased in is favor.

Incompetent defense lawyers

O.J. Simpson had the “dream team.” He could afford the best. But most defendants who face the death penalty are poor. They have to rely on a public defender. They can’t afford to hire expert witnesses.

The poor must rely on public defenders. There are many competent and selfless public defenders who work hard for their clients. But many are overworked, inexperienced, and or just don’t care.

False confessions

Sometimes innocent people confess. The Innocence Project works to reverse the convictions of innocent people. They found false confessions in 23% of their cases.

Sometimes innocent people confess because they are intoxicated or mentally impaired in some way. They might also be in a state of shock and unable to think clearly.

Sometimes an innocent person confesses due to coercion, threats, and/or “harsh interrogation techniques.”

And the saddest cases are those who confess because of their ignorance of the law. They think if they just confess, they will be allowed to go home, and then they can prove their innocence later.

Faulty evidence

There are so many different types of faulty evidence, this category needs its own section.

The justice system is inherently flawed.

The justice system is inherently flawed.

What kinds of faulty evidence results in false convictions?

The amount of faulty evidence that results in convictions that put innocent people on death row is astounding.

Mistaken identity

The Innocence Project has found that the number one reason for wrongful conviction, proven by DNA, is an unreliable eyewitness report.

Eye witness testimony is often unreliable. There are hundreds of scientific studies, dating back to the 1800’s, that show that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, yet this type of testimony is often the main, and sometimes only factor, in convictions.

Of the over 300 exonerations achieved by the Innocence Project, 77% involved faulty eyewitness testimony.

Faulty forensic science

Faulty forensic science is the second greatest source of error, present in 50% of the Innocence Project exonerations. Just honest mistakes.

Unreliable Informants

Innocent people get convicted because of the “jailhouse snitch. It strains credulity that this evidence is even allowed into a court room.

Promise a convict a reduced sentence or promise someone accused of another crime reduced charges, or get an accomplice to give “state’s evidence” and what do you think you are going to hear? Exactly what you want to hear.

It is amazing how many people want to confess to these “snitches,” but only after the “snitch” makes his deal with the authorities. The Innocence Project found false testimony by informants in 16% of the cases of wrongful convictions.

Prosecutorial misconduct

There is often prosecutorial misconduct. Sometimes the prosecutor wants a conviction so bad--or maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt--he really believes the defendant is guilty. So he will browbeat witnesses, produce evidence he knows to be unreliable, and withhold and/or destroy exculpatory evidence.

Learn more about the work of the Innocence Project

  • The Innocence Project - Home
    The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Unintentional or willful human error plays a major role in the injustice of the death penalty.

Unintentional or willful human error plays a major role in the injustice of the death penalty.

What underlies all of the previously mentioned factors?

The underlying reason for innocent people on death row is that humans are imperfect. We make mistakes and sometimes we lie and cheat. But should we risk condemning an innocent person to death because of our human frailties? As long as there is a death penalty, innocent people will die.

The appeals process and groups like The Innocence Project help to overturn some wrongful convictions. This helps, but some wrongful convictions slip through the cracks. Usually once a person has been executed, the case is no longer investigated. The resources must go to try to save the ones who are still alive.

George Stinney

George Stinney was 14 years old when this mug shot was taken.

George Stinney was 14 years old when this mug shot was taken.

The case of George Stinney

I try to write with objectivity. I don’t want to do personal essays; I want to write as a researcher or reporter. The case of George Stinney forces me to get personal. I’m writing this as I try to fight back tears.

The case was on the TV news last night. I had been thinking about writing on this topic, but I kept putting it off because it is such a difficult subject. After seeing the news report about George Stinney, I knew I had to write about this today.

The case of George Stinney goes back to 1944. It is not a typical case, but it is one that highlights many of the problems with the death penalty. George Stinney was a 14 year-old black boy in South Carolina. He was five-feet tall and weighed 95 pounds. He was convicted of murdering two white girls. The trial lasted two hours, the all-white jury deliberated for 10 minutes, and Stinney was executed three months later. Thee was no appeal.

Yesterday, December 18, 2014, 70 years after the execution of this child, a judge vacated his conviction stating that there was absolutely no evidence in support of his conviction. Too bad the judge could not vacate his death. Death cannot be undone.

George Stinney was so small that he had to sit on books to get his head high enough to reach the helmet of the electric chair. As the current passed through his body, his body went into convulsions. The hood fell from his head. The witnesses saw the tears running down his face.

You may be thinking that it happened in a different time and a different place. It couldn’t happen now. You would be wrong. As long as there is a death penalty, no one can be sure this will not happen again.

Read the book written about the George Stinney case.

Why do they want to kill me for something I didn't do?

— George Stinney, from his jail cell

Read the NBC News Report

Child in the Chamber: Scenes from the movie, Carolina Skeletons

What are your beliefs about the execution of innocent people in the U.S.?

There are some good signs.

There is some progress being made on the abolition of the death penalty.

There is some progress being made on the abolition of the death penalty.

Footnote: There is progress on the death penalty.

The number of new death sentences has gone from 315 in 1996 to 72 in 2014.

The number of executions has gone down from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014.

In the 1990s, 20 states carried out at least one execution; in 2014 only 7 states did so. (The highest number of executions took place in Texas, Missouri, and Florida.)

Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

I welcome your comments.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on January 17, 2015:

Ethan Digby-New. It is definitely difficult for me to write on this subject. It is very emotional. People need to know these things. I had no idea before I heard a lecture on this topic and then started doing my own research. I appreciate that you took the time to comment.

Ethan Digby-New on January 17, 2015:

This was very informative Hub, as well as a very saddening one. It reminds me of a book I'm reading about the faults in the justice system. It is very depressing to hear of this. But nonetheless it was a good and informative Hub!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 21, 2014:

Thank you, Kate McBride. Please feel free to quote me as often as you wish. It can't be said too often. The more people hear the phrase lethal lottery, the more they might come to believe it.

Kate McBride from Donegal Ireland on December 21, 2014:

Excuse me quoting you again Catherine but you are right-the death penalty is indeed a lethal lottery.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 21, 2014:

Thank you MsDora: I appreciate your support. The Stinney case was the most terrible because the boy was so young, but there are many innocent people on Death Row in the US and around the world.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 21, 2014:

The case of Stinney is so unfortunate. Imagine his thoughts as he sat in that chair to die innocently. False accusations, false confessions, prejudice and more make it difficult to issue the death sentence without some kind of fear. Thanks for a very good presentation on the topic. Wish that all concerned with this horrible act would read it!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 21, 2014:

Thank you so much, Iris, for your praise. Capital punishment is a difficult indeed a subject to write about. It is worth it if I can help bring awareness to the issue. I'm glad to hear that you feel my arguments are cogent. I believe many more people would be against the death penalty if they knew the facts. I hope more people will take the time to learn the facts.

Cristen Iris from Boise, Idaho on December 21, 2014:

Catherine, I am so glad that you take the time and expend the emotional energy to write about this issue. I can't even pick a favorite thing about this article because I'd just re-quote it in its entirety. I will say that your point about biased juries is an argument that doesn't seem to carry the weight that it should in these discussions. I am glad you included it in your very cogent argument against the death penalty.

Excellent article! And not just because I agree with your thesis. It's excellent because it is timely, factual and reasoned. We need more writers like you.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 20, 2014:

Thank you Kate Mc Bride: I's so pleased that we are on the same page about the death penalty.

Kate McBride from Donegal Ireland on December 20, 2014:

your term "lethal lottery says it all Catherine. Use of the death penalty is circumstantial- not based on justice or evidence. This hub is thought-provoking and interesting. Thanks for sharing your well-informed views

muhammad abdullah javed on December 20, 2014:

Yes ofcourse Catherine your voice will be heard.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 20, 2014:

m abdullah javed: Thank you for commenting. We do want to make sure we keep people who are dangerous to society locked up. The U.S. is in desperate need of prison reform, and that is a topic I may tackle in the future. Right now there is next to no effort made on reforming people. As for now, I hope my small voice against the death penalty may help bring about change.

muhammad abdullah javed on December 20, 2014:

A well written article on the subject which is sensitive and important as well. Thanks Catherine. The discussion which is more important pertains to the systamic-process through which the judgement is passed. If a decision is made to release a convict with loads of errors is tolerable but if an innocent is convicted even with a single error is absolutely untolerable. I think this should be made mandatory for the judicial system. Any system with lacunas can't establish peace and justice in the society.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 19, 2014:

miocid: I agree with you. The state says to us: Do as I say, not as I do. I have found evidence that I present in my other hubs on this subject that it is quite possible that executions by the state may lead to a higher murder rate. It sends the message that murder is OK.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 19, 2014:

GrammieOlivia: I'm not familiar with the book.I'll check it out. The only novel about death row that I have read is "The Green Mile."

GrammieOlivia on December 19, 2014:

It's amazing that you should write about this now. I just finished reading Jodi Picoult's A Change of Heart. All about an inmate on Death Row. It's a novel, but it addresses some of the things you write about here. Death is such a permanent solution (or not)!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 19, 2014:

AudreyHowitt, Thanks for taking time to read and comment. I totally agree wit you. The whole criminal justice system is the U.S. is a mess. Unfortunately, "the-tough-on-crime" has the power, and nobody has the courage to stand up to them for common-sense reform.

Fire8storm on December 19, 2014:

I will, it sounds great - elves are such happy funny little souls, should do the job nicely!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 19, 2014:

Fire8storm: Look for :The Littlest Elf" tomorrow-it will be my first creative non-fiction hub. . I need to be thinking about something happy.

mio cid from Uruguay on December 19, 2014:

One of the main reasons i oppose the death penalty is because if an innocent person is executed ,that person can not be brought back to life,if a state with all its power murders an innocent person,do we then condemn the state to the death penalty?There is no room in a civilized nation for that kind of behavior.

Audrey Howitt from California on December 19, 2014:

This is a great article on the subject Catherine. Thankfully more states are abolishing the death penalty--but the criminal justice system in this country is seriously flawed from the arrest process through punishment--

Fire8storm on December 19, 2014:

Yes I believe after a trio of hangings of innocent individuals the powers that be saw sense and abolished it here in the UK in the 70's. We now seem to have gone a different way with a sentencing system that frankly does not make sense, but that is a different article altogether! We need to try and balance the good things with the bad things in order to stay positive and have faith in this world that while there are most definitely wrongs, there are rights too and we are, I hope, at least heading in the right direction. I look forward to sweet and heartwarming!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 19, 2014:

Fire8Storm: I see you are from England. England had the good sense to abolish the death penalty about 50 years ago. You make very good points about the unreliability of forensic evidence. The George Stinney story is indeed shocking. (Nowadays cops aren't waiting for juries--they are shooting black children in the streets. That is another thing that was on my mind when I wrote this.) Its Christmas. I want ot write something sweet and heart-warming, but I felt compelled to write this. Tomorrow, I'll write something sweet and heartwarming.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 19, 2014:

Jodah: The examples you give are terrifying. The US isn't quite as bad as the countries you cite, but every so often some politician tries to expand the use of the death penalty. t

Fire8storm on December 19, 2014:

Catherine, this is a well written and powerful article. I am shocked that in the case of George Stinney the jury deliberated for only 10 minutes. I do not understand how the life of a child could be decided upon in such a short time-frame. I have been looking at the safety of forensic evidence recently and am really quite alarmed at what I have found. It is not as reliable and 'safe' as people, and significantly members of juries, think it is. The number of innocent people being executed is utterly frightening and this is a practice that needs some serious attention.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on December 19, 2014:

Wonderful article Catherine. The death penalty should be abolished in the United States and elsewhere. Juries and judges too often get it wrong as was demonstrated with the George Stinney case. Places like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines issue the death penalty for drug smuggling. A number of Australians have been executed for having a small quantity of marajuana found in their luggage or person. The USA I think has more people in prison than any other country. Maybe they hold on to the death penalty to try to keep prison numbers down. The whole justice system needs changing. Thanks for sharing.

Related Articles