A Broken System: The Persistent Patterns of Reversals of Death Sentences in the United States


Professor Andrew Gelman, 623 Mathematics Bldg., Department of Statistics, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027; email gelman@stat.columbia.edu.


We collected data on the appeals process for all death sentences in U.S. states between 1973 and 1995. The reversal rate was high, with an estimated chance of at least two-thirds that any death sentence would be overturned by a state or federal appeals court. Multilevel regression models fit to the data by state and year indicate that high reversal rates are strongly associated with higher death-sentencing rates and lower rates of apprehending and imprisoning violent offenders. In light of our empirical findings, we discuss potential remedies including “streamlining” the appeals process and restricting the death penalty to the “worst of the worst” offenders.