A Broken Study: A Review of “A Broken System: 

The Persistent Patterns of Reversals of Death Sentences in the United States”

Dudley Sharp, contact info below


“A Broken System”, published in 2000, found a 68% error rate in US death penalty cases, from 1973-1995. (1)


Based upon another, neutral source, the overturning rate, for that same period, is 30% and, likely, lower (2).


Of the 5555 sentenced to death, from 1973-1995, the period of the study, 1648 cases, or less than 30%, were overturned because of some error in conviction or sentence. 


Even the 30% is too high, because some of those cases were overturned because of either new legislative or case law that didn’t exist at the time of the trial.


I suggest, based upon a thorough review, inclusive of cases overturned by “new law”, a review of true error in death penalty cases, from 1973-1995, will find the disposition of the cases, overturned, solely, because of error, will be in the 20-28% range, as of publication date 1999, footnote 2.


I looked at the database of all death penalty cases, from 1981-1985, which all had 20-25 years of appeals. Of the 1288 sentenced to death, 560 were overturned because of conviction or sentencing errors, or 43%, minus any “new law” cases. (3)


Still, very high, indeed, but, likely, 40-50% lower than the 68% claimed in “A Broken System”.


In addition, sentences are overturned at nearly twice the rate of convictions, 28% vs 15%, which, in context, may tell us about the bias of many judges against the death penalty, more than it does about errors in sentencing. The judicial bias against the death penalty in states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey is, or was, respectively, quite clear.


Some examples of the criticism of “A Broken System”.


Pennsylvania review: “(A Broken System”) counts cases thrown out when the United States Supreme Court overturned all existing death penalties in the 1970’s. He also counts cases that were reversed on appeal, even if that reversal was itself reversed on further appeal, reinstating the original conviction. Obviously, none of these reversals says anything about the fairness of the current administration of capital punishment.” (4)


NOTE: Therefore, both of these issues are, improperly, evaluated as errors in “A Broken System”.


Florida Review: “Using the authors’ misleading definition, the “study” does, however, conclude that 64 Florida post-conviction cases were rife with “error” – even though none of these Florida cases was ultimately resolved by a “not guilty” verdict, a pardon or a dismissal of murder charges.” ” Indeed, in more than a third of the 64 cases cited by the “study,” the death sentence was reimposed, while in other cases the State agreed to accept a plea of life to spare the families of victims the trauma of additional court proceedings. These cases should not be included in a true “error rate” analysis, and if factored out, would show far less “error” in post-conviction cases than the “study” suggests.” “(The study) may leave readers with the false impression that Florida put the wrong individual away for an offense, when no such claim is supported by competent evidence.” (5)


Note: In Florida, it appears, “A Broken System” may have made errors in excess of 40%.


Nevada review: “Death penalty records are kept by the Nevada Supreme Court, Attorney General, Department of Prisons, 17 district attorneys and 17 court clerks, yet Liebman got his from criminal defense attorneys (who apparently reported their wins, but not their losses) and the NAACP Capital Punishment Project (whose agenda is the abolition of the death penalty).” “Second, it appears Liebman picked and chose his cases, tailoring the study to get certain results. He took cases from 1973-1995 for some results; 1993-1995 for other results; and 1973-April, 2000 for others. He used only published opinions for some results, but used unpublished opinions for others. He used only Nevada Supreme Court or federal appeal cases for some results, but added lower state court cases to increase reversals. Liebman didn’t count all Nevada cases. He excluded killers who discontinued their appeals. (He presumed they did so due to frustration with the system, not because they were proved guilty and accepted it.) Incredibly, he didn’t even count the eight men executed in Nevada since 1977!” (6)


NOTE: Could “A Broken System” be that misleading?


Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg; “The refusal to share underlying data with researchers is particularly troubling in light of the media misrepresentation of Liebman as a neutral professor heading a Columbia University study.  In truth, Liebman maintains an active criminal defense practice, and has been litigating against the death penalty since long before he became a professor.  His study was funded in large part by a grant from the anti-capital punishment Soros Foundation, with the stated purpose of “find[ing] effective ways to curb the [death] penalty’s use.”> (Preface to Latzer and Cauthen article) (7)>


“Upon our request, Prof. Liebman (the primary author) declined to release his data to  us. We therefore could not examine the cases or verify the decisions in the “Broken System”. (8)


To decline releasing data could be viewed as another blow to the credibility of “A Broken System”.




(1) A Broken System:  The Persistent Patterns of Reversals of Death Sentences in the United States, (2000), http://www2.law.columbia.edu/instructionalservices/liebman/


(2) Based upon the publication date of “A Broken System”, 2000, this appears to be the most relevant data base: 

the data for 1973-1995, Appendix table 1. Prisoners sentenced to death and the outcome sentence, by year of sentencing, 1973-1998,   “Capital Punishment, 1998”, Bureau Of Justice Statistics BULLETIN, published December, 1999,


(3)  Appendix table 2., Prisoners sentenced to death and the outcome sentence, by year of sentencing, 1973-2005, page 14, “Capital Punishment, 2005”,  Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dec, 2006, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cp05.pdf



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