Innocence Project Policy Advocate on Justice and the Death Penalty


Innocence Project Policy Advocate on Justice and the Death Penalty

Senior Policy Advocate for State Affairs Rebecca Brown, left, shares her insights on justice in America, the death penalty, and the risk of executing an innocent person.


Originally posted on the

Safe California blog



On Monday, Joe D’Ambrosio became the 



 to be exonerated from death row since 1973 in the United States, and the sixth from Ohio. I’d like to share some insights with you on that number from my perspective as an advocate with the Innocence Project.



 There are 

seventeen cases

 where innocent men received the death penalty in the United States. We know this because they were subsequently exonerated by DNA testing.



A prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is entitled to only one tax-payer funded appeal, a process that is usually completed within 

eighteen months

 after conviction.



When Joe D’Ambrosio learned about the Supreme Court ruling on his case he said, “Today was twenty-three years in the making.” California courts are backlogged and slow. 

Justice can take decades to prevail.




In California, the 

average timeline for a death penalty case is twenty-five years

. Death penalty appeals are extensive,


prolonged and costly because innocent people have been sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Constitution require these extra protections; they are not required for those sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.



Although death sentences are at a historic low across the nation, 

California has the largest death row in the country, with seven hundred twenty inmates.

 Given what we know about the criminal justice system’s capacity for error, however, one would


expect that we would be at the forefront of reform efforts to prevent wrongful conviction. The opposite is true.


Joe D'Ambrosio


: In 2006, two years after pulling together a panel of stakeholders from all corners of the criminal justice community in the state, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (CCFAJ) made a series of recommendations to prevent wrongful conviction, including the recording of interrogations and eyewitness identification reform.

Not one of the recommendations was implemented



Death cannot be undone. California has a troubled history when it comes to implementing innocence protection and yet the state has yet to systematically address any of the root causes of wrongful conviction, including misidentification, false confessions, un-validated or improper forensic science, government misconduct and poor lawyering, to name a few.


Over the past 30 years, California has enacted numerous “fixes” to the death penalty. They have all failed to streamline the system, and instead have cost taxpayers more money. The CCFAJ itself noted that any reform to increase the pace of review of death penalty cases without decreasing the quality of justice would mean an estimated 

$95 million more a year



California has failed to implement nearly every scientifically-supported innocence protection. The range of potential errors is unacceptable and the appeals process does not provide the needed protections to detect them in every case. Given this grim backdrop, the risk of executing an innocent person is too great, and cannot be tolerated.

Leave a Reply

Thank you for visiting us. You can learn more about how we consider cases here. Please avoid sharing any personal information in the comments below and join us in making this a hate-speech free and safe space for everyone.

This field is required.
This field is required.
This field is required.

We've helped free more than 240 innocent people from prison. Support our work to strengthen and advance the innocence movement.