Egregious Error Rate In
Death Penalty Cases
By Uri Avnery

Arizona is among 10 states that have made serious errors in death penalty cases, casting doubt on verdicts, according to a study to be released today by Columbia University Law School.
Arizona, with an error rate of 79 percent, ranked ninth among the states with the worst records. The rate is based on a review of 500 cases that were reversed in the 10 states after going through various appeals.

"They do too many too fast and prosecutors seek the death penalty too quickly," said James Leibman, a Columbia Law School professor who led a team of lawyers and statisticians in the study of cases between 1972 and 1995. The mistakes, which often led to a new trial, cast doubt on the reliability of death penalty verdicts, he said.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor last year voiced concerns about the number of reversals in death penalty verdicts, saying that, "If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing innocent defendants to be executed."

Arizona prosecutors say Leibman's study is wrong, placing the error rate at closer to 50 percent. Still, prosecutors are working to decrease mistakes.

Kent Cattani, chief of capital litigation for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, said that since 1996, indigents facing the death penalty are appointed two defense lawyers. And the state's Capital Case Commission, which includes prosecution and defense lawyers, pushed for legislation last year that banned the execution of the mentally retarded.

Dennis Burke, chief deputy to Arizona General Janet Napolitano, said the commission has conducted a more thorough review of death-penalty cases than the law-school study. The commission's report shows that of 230 death penalty cases imposed in Arizona between 1974 and 2000, less than half were returned for new trials.

The commission study says that 28 convicts were resentenced to death, 60 people received life sentences and 12 others entered pleas for time served and are free.

Seven others were found innocent and walked off death row.

Larry Hammond, a Phoenix defense lawyer who has represented some of the freed defendants, said he is stunned that some prosecutors suggest that a nearly 50 percent error rate is acceptable.

"The people should say this shouldn't happen," he said.

John Stookey, a Phoenix defense lawyer and member of the Capital Case Commission, agrees.

Stookey reviewed all six volumes of the Leibman study and said he was impressed with its quality.

"Anyone who doesn't think it casts doubt on the death penalty in Arizona is either misguided or not being truthful," he said.

The defense attorneys point to death-row inmates such as Robert Cruz, who won his freedom in 1995 after more than 14 years behind bars and five trials, triggered by appeals and deadlocked juries.

Cruz was accused of arranging the highly publicized 1980 murders of Phoenix print-shop owner, William Patrick Redmond, and his mother-in-law Helen Phelps.

The National Institute of Justice and the Columbia Law School sponsored the $1.25 million study.

Seventy-six percent of the reversed cases nationwide were blamed on ineffective defense counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, biased judges and jurors or wrong instructions to jurors, the study concluded. The finding is based on a nationwide review of more than 5,800 death penalty cases.

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