Innocence

NEW VOICES: Retired Colorado Corrections Officer Raises Questions of Deterrence, Innocence

In a recent op-ed for The Denver Post, retired corrections officer and military veteran Pete Lister offered a critique of the death penalty, saying it fails as a deterrent, risks executing innocent people, and costs more than life without parole. "Capital punishment has not, in a single state, proven to be a deterrent to capital crime." Lister said. "Society consists of human beings who make mistakes. There are those who are, occasionally, negligent, and some who are even dishonest or unethical. We are faced with the troubling fact that if we, as a society, err in a capital case, the sentence is irreversible." Drawing on his experience as a corrections officer, Lister compared capital punishment to life without parole, saying, "involuntary incarceration is not the life of Riley that some would have you believe" and asking whether "life in prison without the hope of parole" may "actually [be] worse than a death sentence." Discussing the risk or error, he said, "When we, society, wrongfully convict someone, whether through malfeasance or neglect, or whether the technology extant at time of trial was insufficient to prove innocence, then we, society, have a responsibility to release him, to publicly acknowledge the error, and allow that citizen to move past the horror that we, society, have inflicted. How do we do that after we've put him to death?" Lister also noted that the cost of capital punishment, which he said "far exceeds the cost of incarcerati[on] even for life, ... is more than simply financial. It's been argued that voting for execution takes a terrible emotional toll on jury members." He concludes with a question: "Whether you believe the death penalty is justifiable, if you were the one being accused of a murder you had not committed, where would you stand on this issue?"

60 Minutes Profiles Life After Death Row for Exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton

On Sunday, January 10, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated on April 3, 2015 after spending nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. In the interview, Hinton described how issues of race permeated his case. Hinton told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley about a conversation he had with a police lieutenant after having been arrested: "I said, 'You got the wrong guy.' And he said, 'I don't care whether you did it or don't.' He said, 'But you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'You got a white man. They gonna say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely.' And he said, 'All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.' I said, 'Well, does it matter that I didn't do it?' He said, 'Not to me.'" Hinton went on to explain how he felt about the racial bias in his case: "I can't get over the fact that just because I was born black and someone that had the authority who happened to be white felt the need to send me to a cage and try to take my life for something that they knew that I didn't do." Bryan Stevenson, Hinton's attorney and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, joined Hinton for the interview, and spoke about the systemic issues surrounding the case. "This isn't luck, this was a system, this was actually our justice system, it was our tax dollars who paid for the police officers who arrested Mr. Hinton. Our tax dollars that paid for the judge and the prosecutor that prosecuted him. That paid for the experts who got it wrong. That paid to keep him on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn't commit. This has nothing to do with luck. This has everything to do with the way we treat those who are vulnerable in our criminal justice system."

Harvard Law Professor Chronicles 'The Death Penalty's Last Stand'

In a recent article in Slate, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, the executive director of the university's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says "the death penalty is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and cruelty." He emphasizes the increasing isolation of capital punishment to a few outlier jurisdictions, particularly highlighting Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Caddo Parish received national attention when, shortly after the exoneration of Glenn Ford, who was wrongfully convicted and spent 30 years on death row, District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should "kill more people." Ogletree described the legacy of racial violence and intimidation in the parish, including that Caddo Parish, which has been responsible for 8 of Louisiana's 12 death sentences since 2010, was "the site of more lynchings of black men than all but one other county In America." Until 2011, a Confederate flag flew atop a monument to the Confederacy outside the entrance to the parish courthouse in Shreveport where jurors reported for duty. In 2015, a study (click image to enlarge) found that Caddo prosecutors struck prospective black jurors at triple the rate of other jurors. Ogletree spotlighted a number of questionable death sentences imposed on Caddo defendants who may have been innocent and framed, were intellectually disabled or mentally ill teenagers, or who suffered from serious brain damage and mental illness, and who were provided systemically deficient representation. "Caddo offers us a microcosm of what remains of the death penalty in America today," Ogletree says. 33 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than 9 years. Just six states performed executions in 2015, and three-quarters of the people who were executed last year raised serious questions about mental health or innocence. Death sentences were at a record low (49), and 14, he said, came from two states - Alabama and Florida - that allow non-unanimous jury recommendations of death. Ogletree concludes, "The death penalty in America today is the death penalty of Caddo Parish—a cruel relic of a bygone and more barbarous era. We don’t need it, and I welcome its demise."

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Stress Findings from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report

Several newspapers across the country featured themes from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report in editorials and opinion pieces at the end of December:

"Once broadly accepted, capital punishment is increasingly a fringe practice. A handful of states conduct nearly all executions. Four — Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida — carried out 93 percent of them in 2015. Sixty-three percent of new death sentences came from a mere 2 percent of U.S. counties, a group with a history of disproportionately using the death penalty.Bad policy encourages this sort of excess: Three states — Alabama, Delaware and Florida — do not require juries to be unanimous when recommending a death sentence. A quarter of new sentences came from split juries in these states."

"Not only did executions drop in 2015, but the number of people sentenced to death also hit an historic low, the center said. That could be due to a growing skepticism by jurors of a system susceptible to manipulation through coerced testimony or other misconduct...— or there could be some other reason for a decline in convictions on capital punishment charges...What is clear is that there's no correcting an execution if later evidence shows the prosecution was wrong...Abolition is the direction of the future, and the U.S. should join."

"[T]he fact that new death sentences were at an all-time low in Texas this year is reason to applaud...Texas’ declines mirror numbers across the nation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, death sentences dropped 33 percent from 2014, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1998...Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit."
 
 
"In 2015, in fact, otherwise proudly liberal California led the nation in death sentences with 14, even as the national number dropped to 49, the fewest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of California’s death sentences, eight were in Riverside County (including five of the eight Latinos sentenced to death nationwide), plus three in Los Angeles and one in Orange...If we’re going to have the death penalty, shouldn’t it be at least somewhat consistent across the state?"

"As Florida becomes more isolated in its administration of the death penalty, the state is getting deserved scrutiny for problems with the practice. A year-end report from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center found just three states — Alabama, California and Florida — accounted for more than half of the nation’s new death sentences in 2015. More than a quarter of this year’s death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice allowed in just those two states and Delaware. ...As Florida officials have pushed to speed up the pace of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center found the rest of the country is heading in the opposite direction. A dozen states haven’t executed anyone in at least nine years, while 18 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty altogether. ... As most other states move away from the death penalty, it is long past time for Florida to follow their lead."

"A Reading Eagle investigation in October found nearly one in five Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death the past decade were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. And the majority of these disciplined attorneys had been found by Pennsylvania courts to be ineffective in at least one capital case. More than 150 inmates sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Sooner or later an innocent person will be executed, if it hasn't happened already...It is time to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania." (This editorial announced the end of the Eagle's prior position supporting the death penalty under limited circumstances.)

Innocents Lost: Remembering The Wrongfully Condemned Who Died in 2015

Three death-row exonerees, including two who became symbols of the risks of wrongful capital convictions, died in 2015. David Keaton (pictured, far left), the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty, died on July 3 at the age of 63. A teenaged Keaton was sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based upon a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. Keaton was exonerated in 1973 when new evidence revealed the actual perpetrator. Glenn Ford (pictured, left), who was exonerated in 2014 after spending nearly 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at age 65. Ford was tried before an all-white jury, represented by appointed counsel who had never handled a criminal case. He was convicted despite the absence of any evidence linking him to the murder weapon, when prosecutors failed to disclose that confidential informants had identified two other men as the murderers. They ultimately admitted that "credible evidence" showed that "Ford was neither present at, nor a participant in," the murder. Death-row exoneree Andrew Golden, who spent 26 months on Florida's death row from 1991 to 1994, died in May. Golden had been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife although police investigators and the medical examiner had testified that the evidence did not suggest foul play. At least four other death-row prisoners who may have been wrongfully condemned - Lester BowerBrian Keith TerrellDonnis Musgrove, and Ronald Puksar - were executed or died on death row before judicial review of their cases were complete.

Report: 75% of 2015 Executions Raised Serious Concerns About Mental Health or Innocence

Three quarters of American executions in 2015 involved cases of "crippling disabilities and uncertain guilt," according to a report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. Saying that the 2015 executions revealed "a broken capital punishment system," the report found that, "[o]f the 28 people executed [in 2015], 75% were mentally impaired or disabled, experienced extreme childhood trauma or abuse, or were of questionable guilt." It said seven people who were executed suffered from serious intellectual impairment or brain injury, including Warren Hill, who even the state's doctors agreed had intellectual disability, and Cecil Clayton, who lost 20% of his prefrontal cortex as a result of a sawmill accident. An additional seven suffered from serious mental illnesses. One, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated war veteran whom the Veterans Administration had classified as 100% disabled as a result of combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from his service in Vietnam. The report identified five more cases in which the executed prisoners had experienced extreme childhood trauma and abuse, and another two - Lester Bower and Brian Keith Terrell - in which it said the executed men "were potentially innocent." The report also highlighted developments described in DPIC's Year End Report, including the increasing isolation of death penalty use to a small number of jurisdictions. "Only a handful of outlier counties still impose the death penalty," the report said, and an examination of practices in those counties often "reveals themes of overzealous prosecutors who often bend the rules, poorly performing defense lawyers, and a legacy of racial bias." As a result, "these outlier counties tend to [also have] an unacceptable history of convicting the innocent and individuals with crippling mental impairments." (Click image to enlarge.)

After 3 Trials and Recanted Testimony, Georgia Set to Execute Man Who May Be Innocent

UPDATE: Terrell was denied clemency on Dec. 7 and executed just before 1:00 a.m. on December 9. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that it took a nurse an hour to find a vein for the lethal injection IV and that, as the execution drug was being administered, Terrell mouthed the words: "Didn't do it." EARLIER: After three trials, Georgia is set to execute Brian Keith Terrell (pictured) on December 8, unless the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants him clemency in a hearing at which he will present claims that he is innocent. Terrell's lawyers say that no physical evidence links him to the murder and that this conviction and death sentence are a product of prosecutorial misconduct and false and misleading testimony. The key testimony against Terrell came from a witness whom defense investigators say now admits to having lied to save himself. Terrell's first trial ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on whether he was guilty. The second resulted in a conviction that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court. The third trial concluded with a conviction and death sentence. Physical evidence from the crime scene leaves substantial questions as to Terrell's guilt: footprints found near the victim's body were smaller than Terrell's feet, and none of the 13 fingerprints found by investigators matched his fingerprints. Terrell was convicted primarily on the testimony of his cousin, Jermaine Johnson, who spent a year in jail facing the threat of the death penalty before he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Terrell in exchange for a five-year sentence. Johnson has told defense investigators that police and prosecutors pressured him to give false testimony against his cousin. Terrell's lawyers say that prosecutors also presented misleading testimony that a neighbor had said she had seen Terrell at the murder scene, when in fact she had told authorities that he was not the man she had seen. At Terrell's trial, the prosecutor emphasized the importance of Johnson's testimony, saying during his closing statement, "If you never heard anything about Jermaine Johnson in this case, if he had never testified, would you have enough information to make a decision in this case? You wouldn't." 

Alabama Inmate Dies on Death Row Before Federal Court Can Decide His Innocence Claim

Donnis Musgrove (pictured), an Alabama death row prisoner with a substantial claim of innocence, died of lung cancer on Alabama's death row on November 25, while his case was pending before a federal judge. Musgrove's attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge David Proctor to rule quickly because of Musgrove's medical condition. Musgrove and his co-defendant, David Rogers, who previously died on Alabama's death row, were sentenced to death in 1988. Rogers' lawyer, Tommy Nail - now a state court judge - said he believed Musgrove and Rogers "got a raw deal and I've always felt they were not guilty of this offense." He said the case shared "eerie" similarities with that of recent death row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton: both cases were tried by the same prosecutor before the same judge, and the prosecution presented questionable weapons testimony from the same ballistics expert. The ballistics testimony in Hinton's case was contradicted by three other ballistics experts, and prosecutors decided not to retry him after saying they could not link the bullets from the crime to a gun that belonged to Hinton. Nail said the defendants in both cases also presented solid alibi evidence. Musgrove's attorneys argued that, in addition to similarly unreliable ballistics testimony, Musgrove's conviction was tainted by falsified eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and false testimony by a jailhouse informant who later recanted. Musgrove's attorney, Cissy Jackson, said "It was a privilege to know and represent Donnis. My husband and I have been working for his release since 1997, and we are so sorry that he did not live to be exonerated."

Pages