Innocent lives in the balance
The real risk of executing the innocent
Since 1973, at least 142 people have been freed after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. That’s almost one innocent person exonerated for every ten who’ve been executed.1 Wrongful convictions rob innocent people of decades of their lives, waste tax dollars, and re-traumatize the victim’s family, while the people responsible remain unaccountable.
What we have learned in the DNA era
- Hundreds of DNA exonerations reveal that murder cases are often riddled with problems: mistaken eyewitnesses, bad lawyers, shoddy forensics, unreliable jailhouse snitches, coerced confessions, and more.
- DNA cannot solve these problems – it can only tell us how bad they are. DNA evidence exists in just 5-10% of criminal cases – far fewer than one would think from TV crime shows like CSI. 2
- In those few cases where DNA evidence is available, courts can block access to DNA testing even when it could exonerate someone. Furthermore, scientific evidence is only as good as the people doing the testing – and crime labs from Baltimore to Oklahoma City have come under fire for errors and even fraud in their forensics.
- The risk of executing an innocent person is not limited to cases where lawyers sleep through trials. Despite the very best efforts, human beings are not perfect. In a capital case, even one small mistake can be deadly.
- Contrary to popular belief, the appeals process is not designed to catch many of these mistakes. These exonerations came only because of the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system – pro bono lawyers, family members, even students.
- Innocent people have spent up to 33 years awaiting execution, or come within hours of execution, before the truth came to light. Any effort to streamline the death penalty process or cut appeals will only increase the risk that an innocent person will be executed.
- One of most comprehensive state death penalty studies in the nation recommended 85 reforms that were essential to decrease the risk of wrongful executions.3 Not a single death penalty state has even a majority of those reforms in place.
- Frank Lee Smith was sentenced to death in Florida on the testimony of a single witness. No physical evidence tied him to the crime. Four years later, the same witness saw a photo of a different man and realized she had made a mistake. DNA tests later confirmed that Smith was innocent, but it was too late. He had died in prison of pancreatic cancer.4
- Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for setting fire to his home, killing his three children. Experts now say that the arson theories used in the investigation were scientifically invalid. Willingham may very well have been executed for an accidental fire.5
- Gary Gauger was sentenced to die in Illinois for the murder of his parents. Police questioned him for 18 hours, depriving him of sleep, food, or drink. They convinced him that he had blacked out and that’s why he didn’t remember killing his parents. He was sentenced to die on the basis of this “confession.” An unrelated investigation later uncovered the people who actually committed the crime, and
Gauger was exonerated.6
- Troy Davis was executed in Georgia in 2011 for the murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. No physical evidence ever tied him to the crime. His conviction was based on the testimony of nine witnesses – seven of whom later recanted or changed their testimony. Of the two who kept their testimony, one has long been suspected of committing the murder himself. The Davis execution triggered widespread national outrage and the movement to end the death penalty gained thousands of new supporters almost overnight.7
Case in point: Ray Krone was sentenced to death for rape and murder in Arizona even though DNA found on the victim did not match him. The state argued against having the DNA submitted to the database since the jury found him guilty even without physical evidence. A decade later, a crime lab worker ran the DNA through a database on his own, without a court order, and uncovered the identity of the person who actually committed the crime.
Despite the best intentions, we can’t be right 100% of the time
The wrong man: Stories of a broken system
We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 30 years. We now know that innocent people are sentenced to die. When a life is on the line, one mistake is one too many. Can we afford the risk?
- 1. www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.
- 2. "Non-DNA Exonerations" The Innocence Project
- 3. The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment was a two-year study that recommended 85 reforms to the state’s death penalty in 2002. Several states have compared their systems to the 85 reforms and found virtually none of those reforms were in place.
- 4. "Requiem for Frank Lee Smith," PBS Frontline
- 5. "Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?," David Grann in The New Yorker
- 6. "Gary Gauger," Northwestern University School of Law, Center on Wrongful Convictions; EJUSA interview with Gary Gauger, 2001.
- 7. "Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?," Innocence Project, Case files
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