Innocence

CNN Legal Analyst Calls "Sanity of the Death Penalty” Into Question

Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst who has been both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, says in a recent op-ed that "it is hard not to question the rationality -- indeed the sanity" of the death penalty. Holloway says "there are several practical reasons why the death penalty just doesn't make sense any longer, if it ever really did in the first place," and outlines five reasons why he believes the United States should reconsider capital punishment. First, he says that life without parole is actually a harsher punishment than the death penalty, citing the harsh conditions of maximum-security prisons on the state and federal level. Second, Holloway points to the ongoing trial of James Holmes in Colorado as one instance of the excessive cost of the death penalty. The Holmes trial is expected to cost about $3.5 million, compared to an average of $150,000 in cases without the death penalty. Third, he notes the toll of capital cases on victims' families: "family members and loved ones of murder victims often find themselves entangled in the justice system for a very long time" because of lengthy appeals after a death sentence is handed down. His fourth point is the uneven application of the death penalty, which he says is the result of prosecutorial discretion in whether to seek a death sentence. Finally, Holloway says, "Despite safeguards, innocent people do wind up on death row." He mentions the 154 people exonerated from death row, highlighting last year's exoneration of Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row before being cleared by DNA evidence. "Our criminal justice system -- and those caught up in it, including the families of victims -- would be the biggest beneficiaries should we choose to end capital punishment in the United States," he concludes. 

David Keaton, First Death Row Exoneree in Modern Era, Dies at Age 63

David Keaton, the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty (1973-present), died on July 3 at the age of 63. Keaton was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based on a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. In 1973, the actual perpetrator was discovered because of new evidence, and Keaton was exonerated. In 2003, Keaton became a founding member of Witness To Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees who share their stories to educate the public about the death penalty. Kathy Spillman, director of programs and outreach at Witness To Innocence, said of Keaton, "His life was very difficult. He was sentenced to Death Row as a teenager. And like all exonorees, he struggled with issues related to being on Death Row and integrating back into a society that does not provide support for these men and women. [Yet], he was stoic and very gentle. He was a poet and a singer and whenever he got the chance, he participated in activities against the death penalty so that nobody else had to go through what he did." Since Keaton's exoneration in 1973, an additional 153 people have been exonerated from death row.

Urban League President Calls for Reconsideration of Death Penalty

Highlighting the recent abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska and concerns about wrongful convictions, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial (pictured) called for an end to executions. In an op-ed for The Philadelphia Tribune, Morial cited declining public support for the death penalty: "56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, this from a high of almost 80 percent in the mid-90s," he said. He also emphasized the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty, which was critical in bringing about repeal in Nebraska. "There are many experts who contribute much of today’s sea change in attitudes towards capital punishment to the growing number of conservatives coming to the frontlines of the opposition movement to the death penalty, questioning its efficacy and fiscal soundness," Morial said. Finally, he pointed to the stories of those exonerated from death row, saying, "No matter where you may stand on the death penalty debate, where is the value in maintaining a system that could likely execute an innocent man or woman?" He concluded, "As long as questions of equity, fairness and fallibility persist, we must stop executions and give death row inmates every chance to prove their innocence."

Former Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom Released from Mississippi Prison

Michelle Byrom (pictured, seated) was released from prison in Mississippi on June 26 after spending 16 years behind bars, 14 of them on death row, for the murder of her husband. Byrom maintains her innocence for the crime, but agreed to an Alford plea -- which means that she pleaded no contest to the charges against her -- in exchange for her release. In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Byrom's conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial, citing numerous problems in her case. Byrom's attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence, and the jury was never told that Byrom's son, Junior, had confessed to killing his father. Junior initially told police that his mother had hired someone to kill his father, but later wrote in a letter, "You are all I have, and they're trying to take that away from me now, but Mom I'm gonna tell you right now who killed Dad 'cause I'm sick and tired of all the lies. I did, and it wasn't for money, it wasn't for all the abuse — it was because I can't kill myself." Junior pleaded guilty to conspiring in the murder, was sentenced to 30 years, and received a supervised release in 2013. John White, one of Byrom's attorneys, said of her release, "It's been a long arduous journey. The outcome is appropriate, given the history of the case."

Death Row Exoneree Glenn Ford Dies One Year After Release

Glenn Ford, who was exonerated last year after spending almost 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at the age of 65. At the time of his release, Ford was the nation's longest-serving death row exoneree. Just hours after his death, Ford's case was cited in the dissenting opinion of Justice Breyer in Glossip v. Gross, as providing “striking” evidence “that the death penalty has been wrongly imposed.” Justice Breyer mentioned innocence, prosecutorial wrongdoing, the length of time inmates spend on death row, and the unreliability of capital convictions among the reasons why he now “believe[s] it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” In 1984, Ford was convicted of murder on the testimony of a witness who later said police had helped her make up her story. Ford's attorney had never tried a case before a jury. After Ford's exoneration, the lead prosecutor on his case, A.M. "Marty" Stroud III, issued a public apology. He expressed his belief in Ford's complete innocence, saying, "There was no technicality here. Crafty lawyering did not secure the release of a criminal...Pursuant to the review and investigation of cold homicide cases, investigators uncovered evidence that exonerated Mr. Ford. Indeed, this evidence was so strong that had it been disclosed during of the investigation there would not have been sufficient evidence to even arrest Mr. Ford!" Stroud urged the state to grant Ford compensation for his wrongful conviction, but no compensation was granted before Ford's death.  

Gary Clements, Director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, tells DPIC that "At 2:11 [Monday] morning, Glenn slipped away very quietly and peacefully. He was held and surrounded by people who cared about him, and was listening to a song he loved."

Recent Texas Execution: Did An Innocent Man Fall Through Death Penalty Procedural Cracks?

Lester Bower was executed in Texas on June 3 despite maintaining his innocence throughout the 30 years he spent on death row. The evidence of Bower's innocence included testimony from a woman who said that her boyfriend and three of his friends -- not Bower -- had committed the murders for which Bower was executed. The witness came forward in 1989, after reading that Bower had been sentenced to death for the crime her boyfriend had confessed to committing six years earlier. In 2012, a judge rejected Bower's request to present the testimony to a jury, saying, "the new evidence produced by the defendant could conceivably have produced a different result at trial...it does not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is actually innocent." Maurice Possley, a senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations, explained the judge's decision: "He points out in pretty clear terms that this guy probably would have been found not guilty had this evidence been available at trial. But now, all these years later, he can’t meet the new standard, which is actual innocence. That was not the standard at trial. Then it was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Samuel Gross, editor and co-founder of the registry, said, "To me it’s one of the most troubling features of our justice system. In the absence of procedural error, you have no effective escape valve. We don’t have a procedure for reviewing convictions for accuracy."

Editorials in Major Death Penalty States Call for Its Abolition

Recent editorials from leading newspapers in three of the largest death row states critique flaws in the death penalty and call for its abolition. The Sacramento Bee quoted federal district court judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling finding California's death penalty unconstitutional because executions are so rare that they "serve no retributive or deterrent purpose." The Bee called the state's capital punishment system "an abject failure" and said, "[t]he death penalty has not worked, and never will." In the wake of the exoneration of Alfred Brown from Texas' death row, the Dallas Morning News said, "Brown’s release underscores the unacceptably high potential for killing innocent people despite clear flaws in the prosecutorial system." That editorial concluded,"The criminal justice system is too riddled with imperfections to merit reliance on a sentence that cannot be revisited or reversed once it’s carried out. Not when life without parole is an alternative." In Pennsylvania, The Harrisburg Patriot-News said, "The state should not be in the business of killing people." It urged Gov. Tom Wolf to go beyond the moratorium he imposed on the death penalty earlier this year and "seek an end to the practice entirely." Citing the rarity of executions in Pennsylvania and the difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, the editorial said, "Justice can be served through imprisoning a murderer for the rest of his or her life. Vengeance against the accused is not justice."

STUDY: "The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina"

A new study by North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Litigation examines the financial and human costs of cases in which, "prosecutors sought the death penalty despite a clear lack of evidence, resulting in acquittal or dismissal of charges." The report found 56 such cases in North Carolina since 1989, in which innocent people spent a total of 112 years spent in jail, with $2.4 million spent in defense costs alone in these weak death penalty cases. The authors compare these cases to those in which people were wrongfully convicted and sent to death row, saying, "We found cases in which state actors hid exculpatory evidence, relied on junk science, and pressured witnesses to implicate suspects. In several cases, there was no physical evidence and charges were based solely on the testimony of highly unreliable witnesses, such as jail inmates, co-defendants who were given lighter sentences in return for cooperation, and paid informants. Reliance on such witnesses was a factor in more than 60 percent of the cases we studied." In addition to the clear-cut time and financial costs, the study also describes the effects of wrongful prosecutions on the defendants: "In addition to leaving many in financial ruin, the state does not even do these exonorees the favor of clearing their criminal histories. They must request a court order to expunge their criminal records, an expensive and lengthy process. Those who were already living at the margins of society often struggled to find jobs, and some fell into homelessness after they were released from jail." The authors conclude by contrasting the intended use of the death penalty with their findings: "A punishment as serious as execution should be pursued only in the most ironclad cases: those with the strongest evidence of guilt and in which the circumstances of the crime make the defendant more culpable than most—the 'worst of the worst.' Yet, the reality is entirely different. This report uncovers a system in which the threat of execution is used in the majority of cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence."

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