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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK
Most US death sentences 'flawed'
Death chamber table
Illinois has suspended the death penalty amid criticism
A major study of capital punishment in the United States says more than two-thirds of convictions are so flawed that they are overturned on appeal.

You're creating a very high risk that some errors are going to get through the process

Professor James Liebman

The Columbia University report describes America's capital punishment system as fraught with errors.

And it says the fault lies in part with the prosecutors who refuse to share vital evidence with defence lawyers and juries.

Texas governor and presidential candidate George W Bush, who claims that no one has been wrongly executed during his period as Texas governor, risks his campaign being undermined by the report and growing criticism of the death penalty.

George W Bush: Confidence in death penalty

The study of 4,578 appeals between 1973 and 1995 showed that most cases "are so seriously flawed that they have to be done over again".

Report author Professor James Liebman said: "It's not one case, it's thousands of cases. It's not one state, it's almost all of the states.

"You're creating a very high risk that some errors are going to get through the process."

Prof Liebman says the biggest problem is lazy and incompetent defence lawyers.

In one controversial case, death row inmate Calvin Burdine is fighting to overturn his 1983 conviction on the grounds that his court-appointed lawyer slept through much of his two-day trial.

Executions suspended

Supporters of the death penalty say the study only goes to show how difficult it is to execute an innocent person, given how many appeals against execution are upheld.

Opponents say the large number of successful appeals shows how flawed capital trials are throughout the country.

The report comes at a time when America's use of the death penalty is more controversial than ever.

I know there are some in the country who don't care for the death penalty, but ... we've adequately answered innocence or guilt

George W Bush

Illinois recently suspended all executions because of doubts about the guilt of those on death row.

Mr Bush earlier this month granted his first 30-day reprieve in a death penalty case, but continued to claim confidence in his state's capital punishment system.

He said: "I know there are some in the country who don't care for the death penalty, but ... we've adequately answered innocence or guilt.

"They've had full access to the courts. They've had full access to a fair trial."

Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, Texas has executed 218 people - more than any other state and about a third of the country's total.

With new medical technology reshaping the debate over capital punishment - the recent reprieve by Mr Bush was over DNA tests - a group of public health physicians hopes the American Medical Association will seek a national moratorium on executions.

"The possibility exists that in several states innocent individuals may be executed because medical technology will not be made available in time to prevent their death," said the American Association of Public Health Physicians, the nation's largest doctors group.

But public support for capital punishment remains high.

A Gallup poll in February showed 66% back the use of death sentences, down somewhat from Gallup polls during the 1990s that showed support ranging from 71% to 80%.

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See also:

02 Jun 00 | Americas
Bush blocks execution
09 Jun 00 | Americas
US re-thinks death penalty
22 May 00 | Americas
Serial killer gets death penalty
25 Feb 00 | Americas
US grandmother executed for murder
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