How Many Innocent People Have Been Executed in the US?


One of the arguments that raises its head during the death penalty debate is the fact that we don’t always know with absolute certainty that the accused committed the crime. Even if that person confesses, you can’t be sure that they weren’t forced into that confession, or they weren’t under great mental stress when they made it.

It’s one of the flaws in the system and regardless of which side you are on, you have to admit that it’s a pretty worrying one. The idea of being put to death for a crime you didn’t do is terrifying, but it’s something that has happened to countless death row inmates over the years. In fact, the odds are that right now there is someone on death row awaiting execution even though they don’t commit the crime.

But just how rare is this? We can never know an exact figure, of course, but what do the stats suggest?

Hundreds Could be Innocent

It’s fair to say that the number of innocent people who have been put to death will never be fully known. But a 2014 study did look a little closer at this issue and found something very interesting.

They looked at everyone who had been placed on death row between 1973 and the date of the study and discounted everyone who had been exonerated. The end result, they believe, is good estimation of the percentage of executed inmates who were innocent.

That figure was 4.1%. It doesn’t sound like much, but at the last count there were over 2,800 inmates on death row, which means that 115 of those could be innocent.

How Many People do we Execute?

In China, if you are sentenced to death then you are killed quickly. There are no appeals and it’s fair to assume that more innocents have been executed as a result. In the United States, however, we have an appeals process. Even serial killers like Richard Ramirez spent decades on death row, because being sentenced to death is not an immediate death sentence.

And contrary to what you might think, we do not kill hundreds or thousands. This seems to be the belief that other countries have of the United States, but in 2016, just 20 people were executed and fewer than 40 were given the death sentence.

What do you do if You’re Innocent?

The appeals process is there to help you if you believe that a wrongful conviction has taken place. There are lawyers and specialists who can help you get off with murder charges if you didn’t commit the crime.

The judicial system is not perfect and there is a margin for error, as proven by the previously quoted statistic. But it does allow time for these errors to be corrected.

In most cases, the people wrongly convicted of a crime were at the crime scene, knew the victim, or somehow came into contact with the murder weapon or the body. And it’s easier than you might think to make these errors.

Injury victims and witnesses don’t always remember clearly who hurt them or others, DNA doesn’t paint the complete picture we would like it to and mistakes can be made.

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