Twenty-five people have been executed in the United States since 1900 for crimes they did not commit and 318 have been wrongly convicted of capital offenses, according to a study released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The report, based on court records, law journals, interviews and newspaper accounts, contains some conclusions that an ACLU official acknowledged were "arguable."
Even the authors of the study admit that "the evidence that suffices to convince us, might not convince others."
The ACLU official, Henry Schwarzschild, said the study shows that the death penalty should be abolished because, he contended, the report offers "dramatic proof of the ongoing fallibility of our death-sentencing laws."
The study, by Professors Hugo Adam Bedau of Tufts University and Michael L. Radelet of the University of Florida, said that in nearly 10 percent of the cases studied, no crime had occurred, while in other cases, another person confessed to the crime. Sixty-four of the cases occurred in the last 15 years.
More than 7,000 persons have been executed in the United States since 1900.
The study's list of 25 wrongfully executed persons includes several bitterly contested cases, such as those of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of kidnaping Charles Lindbergh's baby, and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murdering a policeman in the 1930s.
In addition, conclusive evidence based on court records was not available in many of the cases.
"Even if you leave aside the arguable cases," Schwarzschild said, "the point is still the same: The criminal justice system, so long as it has the death penalty, must confront the reality that it will convict innocent people and some of those it will also execute."
Paul Kamenar, legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, said he had not seen the report but that "it sounds like old wine in new bottles." The Washington Legal Foundation supports the death penalty.
Kamenar said that, given the procedural safeguards now protecting those facing the death penalty, the ACLU "would be hard put to find something of current vintage to show where an innocent person has been executed."
The report, he said, "appears to be a desperate attempt to influence public opinion, to give them a false impression that recent ones executed may be innocent -- that's nonsense. I don't know any person the ACLU is representing today where there is any question of the person's guilt."
Schwarzschild said that the ACLU, which long has opposed the death penalty as unconstitutional, useless and discriminatory, now can make another argument against its use.
The latest research shows the death penalty means that innocent people regularly are convicted and executed, he said, and that such errors are "inevitable" in the criminal justice system.