Fact-Checking Kamala Harris on the Campaign Trail

What Ms. Harris Said

“I am, in my entire life, have been opposed and personally opposed to the death penalty. I believe it be a very flawed system. DNA has proven that there have been people who have been convicted and sentenced to the death penalty who turned out to be innocent. In fact, the numbers I know tell me that one in nine people who have been prosecuted under the death penalty led to an exoneration.”
— MSNBC interview in March

While Ms. Harris has long personally opposed the death penalty, her actions did not always reflect that conviction. And false convictions among those sentenced to death are not an aberration, but do not occur at the rate Ms. Harris cited.

Ms. Harris opposed the death penalty in 2003, when she ran for San Francisco’s district attorney. After she won, Ms. Harris refused to seek capital punishment against a man accused of killing a police officer, despite pressure from law enforcement and other state politicians.

When she became California’s attorney general, however, Ms. Harris defended the state’s death penalty after a court ruled that it was unconstitutional. Her spokeswoman said the Department of Corrections and the governor were her clients, and she also disagreed with the judge’s argument that capital cases took too long between conviction and execution.

Some commended Ms. Harris for fulfilling her professional obligation, while others argued she did not need to do so, since she had declined to defend a state ballot initiative that prohibited same-sex marriage (she said that measure violated the Constitution).

Ms. Harris misstated a common talking point from those opposed to the death penalty: For every nine to 10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States, one person has been set free. But that’s not quite the same thing as an exoneration rate of 11 percent.

From 1973 to 2016, the United States put 9,178 prisoners on death row, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But that figure counts some inmates twice, said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, so the actual number is about 8,600. Since 1973, 165 people have exonerated, according to a database maintained by the center, for an exoneration rate of about 1.9 percent.

There is credible research to show that more people facing the death penalty could have been exonerated. A 2014 study found that at least 4.1 percent of those sentenced to death between 1977 and 2004 were convicted erroneously. Mr. Dunham said his group has estimated a similar figure, about 4 percent, of people on death row who were innocent or pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.


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