Death-sentence appeals take too long, traumatize victims’ families, and burden states with millions in extra costs for housing convicted killers, says a new study commissioned by the Justice Department and reported by USA Today. The study asserts that death penalty cases are not hopelessly flawed by errors, as opponents of capital punishment have charged. The study, which reviewed state death sentences issued in the 1990s, found that 26 percent were reversed during the first level of the appeals process. Most of those “direct appeals” were rejected because of sentencing errors. Some of the death sentences were later reinstated. In only 11 percent of those cases did the appeals court find problems with the underlying murder convictions, says the study by Barry Latzer and James Cauthen of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The study challenges a 2000 report that concluded the capital punishment system is “broken” because 68 percent of all death penalty cases from 1973 to 1995 were eventually overturned. The report, by a team led by Columbia University law professor and death penalty foe James Liebman, said 41 percent of cases were reversed during direct appeals. The Liebman study provided a false picture of the death penalty because it included many cases from the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. Supreme Court rewrote death penalty rules and caused many sentences to be reversed, the new report argues. Latzer and Cauthen tracked 1,676 death sentences in 14 “representative” states from 1992 through 2002. It found that half of all death penalty appeals take nearly three years to be decided by state appeals courts. Federal review, which follows state appeals, can extend the process by years.