Computer Program Can Predict Death Row Outcomes


Convicts on death row wait for years while appeals are filed. What determines the final outcome? A criminologist and a computer scientist asked that question as they took 28 years of data on prisoners facing the death sentence and fed it into a software program, the Christian Science Monitor reports. The software -an artificial neural network – predicted with more than 90 percent accuracy who would be executed. Says criminologist Dee Wood Harper of Loyola University in New Orleans: “If this mindless software can determine who is going to die and who is not going to die, then there’s some arbitrariness here in the [justice] system.”

The network, which learns by scanning the data for patterns, was given 1,000 cases from 1973 to 2000 where the outcome was known. Once trained on that information, it was fed another 300 cases but without the outcome included. That’s when its prediction proved highly accurate. What may be alarming is that the 19 points of data supplied on each death-row inmate contained no details of the case. Only facts such as age, race, sex, and marital status were included, along with the date and type of offense. “Despite all our efforts since the 1970s, who gets executed still appears to be random and arbitrary,” says John Wright, a habeas corpus lawyer in Huntsville, home of Texas’s execution facilities.


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