David J. Celuch
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A fatal mistake: Wrongful death penalty convictions

A wrongful death penalty conviction is a tragic, yet very real possibility for people living in Oregon. Capital punishment is legal in Oregon and often a contentious subject. It can only be applied to cases involving aggravated murder charges. Wrongful convictions are estimated to make up six percent of the prison population, and are certainly no exception for capital cases.

Why do wrongful capital punishment convictions happen?

Innocent people are sent to prison for many different reasons, but two issues stand out as major contributing factors in wrongful death penalty cases:

  • False accusations
  • Official misconduct

The most recent data from the Registry of Exonerations shows that false accusations, also known as perjury, were involved in 68 percent of exonerations in homicide cases. Misconduct by government officials was often found in combination with perjury in 63 percent of cases. Other reasons for wrongful convictions in death penalty cases are:

  • Misleading forensic evidence, or “junk science”
  • Mistaken witness identification
  • False confessions
  • Incompetent legal representation

Official misconduct is often linked to race

Law enforcement officers are meant to serve and protect, but this is not always the case. Some government officials have used their positions of power to skew criminal trials. Law enforcement officials may use methods such as pushing for false confessions, lying to jurors, paying informants for untrustworthy evidence or using suggestion to influence witness identification. Official misconduct such as this is often found to be linked to racial prejudice.

Black defendants are victims of official misconduct in exoneration cases involving capital punishment at a much higher rate than white defendants. According to the Registry of Exonerations, 87 percent of black exonerees’ capital punishment convictions involved official misconduct compared to 67 percent of white exonerees.

Fortunately, these people are not alone. Oregon’s Innocence Project works to help wrongfully convicted individuals get out of prison. Attorneys practicing post-conviction relief also work to fight for the freedom of innocent people in prison.

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Portland, OR 97201

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