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Study challenges use of death penalty

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An academic study released Monday warns that "serious, reversible errors" in cases involving capital punishment are crippling the U.S. legal system.

The report, from a group of Columbia University law professors, updates a report issued two years ago that said more than seven of every 10 death penalty cases filed between 1973 and 1995 were reversed because of errors made by judges, juries and prosecutors.

The professors said the study was not designed to present a moral argument for or against capital punishment. Their concern is what they view as the failure of the current system to perform the way it should.

The latest study says there is a correlation between the number of cases eligible for the death penalty and the risk of legal mistakes.

"It puts you at very high risk of having high error rates," said Columbia law professor James Liebman, the study's author. "It also puts you at high risk of sentencing people to death who will later turn out to be innocent."

The report cites political and social pressures to expand the use of the death penalty by prosecutors, and notes that other factors can affect the outcome of capital cases, such as race, and the quality of local law enforcement agencies.

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The study also says that state courts are overworked -- and underfunded -- to the point they can no longer monitor the quality of cases passing through the system.

The key recommendation of the study is that states should apply the death penalty less often.

"If we are going to have the death penalty, it should be reserved for the worst of the worst," according to the study, which suggests a public consensus be found on crimes considered universally heinous to justify the taking of a life by the state.

Saying the U.S. legal system is collapsing under the weight of error-filled death penalty cases, the study also recommends the burden of proof in capital cases be increased to eliminate "any doubt" of guilt. The current standard requires no "reasonable doubt."

It says the death penalty should not be imposed on juveniles and defendants who are seriously mentally ill. And it urges that judges be required to inform juries that life without parole is a sentencing option.

The report concludes the "time is ripe to fix the death penalty, or if it can't be fixed, to end it."




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