Innocence

National Polls Show Historic Declines in Support for Death Penalty

Polls released this week by Pew Research Center and CBS News show that public support for the death penalty has declined to near historic lows. Both polls reported that 56% of Americans support the death penalty. That is the lowest level of support ever recorded by the CBS News poll, and the lowest level reported by Pew in the last 40 years. The Pew poll examined levels of support by political party and found that the decline in support for the death penalty is particularly striking among Democrats, with just 40% saying they support it now, compared to 71% who did in 1996. While 63% viewed the death penalty as a morally justified punishment for murder, most (71%), said there is some risk of executing innocent people, and 61% said they do not believe it deters serious crimes. Support for the death penalty is lowest among racial minorities (34% of blacks and 45% of Hispanics support it), women (49%), and Catholics (53%).  Large drops in support for the death penalty between 2011 and 2015 were reported among liberal Democrats (11 percentage points), women (10 points), those under age 30 (8 points), and conservative Republicans (7 points).

EDITORIALS: New York Times Sees "Alarming" Link Between Official Misconduct and Death Penalty Mistakes

In an editorial on April 13, the New York Times described the death penalty as "cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime" and called it "so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use."  The Times described how prosecutorial misconduct and an "all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs" played a substantial role in the convictions of many of the 152 innocent men and women who have been exonerated after beingly wrongly sent to death row and had contributed to the execution of at least two death-row inmates who almost certainly were innocent. "Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress," the editorial said. "But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases." The Times noted that "In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role."  Read full editorial below.

NEW VOICES: After 36 Executions, Former Virginia Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty

During his tenure as Attorney General of Virginia from 1998 to 2001, that state executed 36 people. Now Mark Earley opposes the death penalty. The former Attorney General recently discussed his change of opinion in an article for the University of Richmond Law Review. He wrote, “If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty.” He said, "Overseeing a legal system that put so many to death with such efficiency eroded me," but political concerns he had as Attorney General "walled off my doubts." Since leaving office, Early said he has "come to the conclusion that the death penalty is based on a false utopian premise. That false premise is that we have had, do have, and will have 100% accuracy in death penalty convictions and executions." He highlights two cases that raised significant concerns for him: the exoneration of Earl Washington, which took place during Earley's tenure as Attorney General, and the recent ruling vacating the conviction of George Stinney, who was executed in South Carolina in 1944 at the age of 14. Earley concludes, "I can no longer support the imposition of a penalty so final in nature, yet so fraught with failures."

Dying Texas Death-Row Inmate - Possibly Innocent - Seeks Relief from His Conviction

Attorneys for Texas death row inmate Max Soffar, who is dying of liver cancer, continue to seek a reversal of his case, even though judicial action - if it comes - may be too late. Soffar maintains his innocence in the 1980 murders of three people during a bowling alley robbery. The sole evidence against Soffar is a confession he signed after three days of unrecorded interrogation that is inconsistent with the facts of the case and, he maintains, is false. The confession also does not match the account of the murders provided by a man who survived the shooting. No physical evidence links Soffar to the crime and Soffar has presented evidence that another man, a serial killer, was much more likely to have committed the murders. Governor Rick Perry rejected a clemency petition last year that sought to allow Soffar to spend his last days at home. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles said that Soffar isn't eligible for clemency because there is no warrant for his execution. Andrew Horne, one of Soffar's attorneys, said, "Justice is where there's a fair system that was followed and offered an outcome that was rational. To me, Max is an injustice because there was never a fair system, and the outcome was completely irrational."  

INNOCENCE: Anthony Ray Hinton Exonerated After 30 Years on Alabama's Death Row

Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured, l.) has been exonerated after spending nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. He will be released on April 3. Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast-food restaurant managers based upon the testimony of a state forensic examiner that the bullets in the two murders came from a gun found in Hinton's house. The prosecutor, who had a documented history of racial bias, said he could tell Hinton was guilty and "evil" just by looking at him. Hinton was arrested after a victim in a similar crime identified him in a photo lineup, even though Hinton had been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away when that crime was committed. Hinton's lawyer did not know the law and mistakenly believed that funding to hire a qualified firearms expert was not available.  Instead, he hired an expert he knew to be inadequate, and as a result failed to present any credible evidence to rebut the state's claim that the bullets were fired from Hinton's gun. In 2002, three top firearms examiners testified that the bullets could not be matched to Hinton's gun, and may not have come from the a single gun at all. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Hinton had been provided substandard representation and returned his case to the state courts for further proceedings.  Prosecutors decided not to retry him after the state's new experts said they could not link the bullets to Hinton's gun. Bryan Stevenson (pictured, r.), Hinton's lead attorney, said, “Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice. I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.” Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1973, the second in 2015, and the sixth in Alabama.

NEW VOICES: Lead Prosecutor Apologizes to Death Row Exoneree, Urges State to Offer Compensation

UPDATE: After Louisiana denied compensation to Mr. Ford — who is in hospice care, dying from Stage 4 cancer — Stroud gave an interview to the Huffington Post in which he says "death penalty prosecutions are a badge of showing how out-of-touch we are with other civilized societies. . . . We can’t trust the government to fix potholes. Why should we believe they can design a death penalty system that's fair?" PREVIOUSLY: In a letter to the Shreveport (Louisiana) Times, attorney A.M. "Marty" Stroud III (pictured), the lead prosecutor in the 1984 trial that sent Glenn Ford to death row until he was exonerated in 2014, offered his apologies to Ford, "for all the misery I have caused him and his family." Stroud voiced his full belief in Ford's 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 takes responsibility for being "too passive" in prosecuting the case. "I did not hide evidence, I simply did not seriously consider that sufficient information may have been out there that could have led to a different conclusion," he said. "I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning." Now he is calling for compensation for Ford -- who is dying of stage 4 cancer that was untreated while he was in prison -- and a reconsideration of the death penalty. "Glenn Ford deserves every penny owed to him under the compensation statute. This case is another example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty.... No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding. We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings."

INNOCENCE: Debra Milke Exonerated from Arizona Death Row

UPDATE: On March 23, Judge Rosa Mroz officially dismissed the charges against Milke. Milke has been added to DPIC's exoneration list. See Milke's statement on her exoneration. PREVIOUSLY: On March 17, the Arizona Supreme Court denied a request by prosecutors that it review a lower court's order that dismissed the charges against Debra Milke as a result of "egregious" police and prosecutorial misconduct and barring her retrial. The court's decision effectively ends prosecutorial efforts to reinstate murder charges against Milke. Milke spent 23 years on death row for allegedly arranging for two men to kill her 4-year-old son so she could collect an insurance payout. The two men who were convicted of committing the killing remain on death row. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned Milke's conviction because the prosecutor had withheld evidence that undermined key testimony in the case. Arizona's prosecutors have been accused of misconduct in more than half of all cases in which the state has imposed death sentences. In this case, Detective Armando Saldate testified that Milke had confessed to him, but there was no recording, nor any witnesses to the confession, and Milke steadfastly denied having confessed. Saldate's personnel record, which prosecutors withheld from the defense, revealed that the detective had committed serious misconduct in prior cases, including lying under oath. In December 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals barred prosecutors from retrying Milke. The state sought to appeal that decision to the Arizona Supreme Court, which the court rejected on Tuesday. The trial court is expected to formally dismiss the charges next week, which would make Milke the 151st person exonerated from death row since 1973 and the first in 2015. She will be the ninth person exonerated from death row in Arizona and the second female death row exoneree in the U.S.

Key Witness In Cameron Willingham Trial May Have Testified In Exchange for Reduced Sentence

A previously undisclosed letter written by jailhouse informant Johnny E. Webb, a crucial witness in the trial of Cameron Willingham (pictured) in Texas, indicates that Webb's sentence may have been reduced in exchange for his testimony that Willingham had confessed to intentionally starting a house fire that killed his three daughters.  The defense had never been informed of the existence of any deal between Webb and prosecutors in the case. Willingham was executed in 2004, but he consistently maintained his innocence, and forensic evidence of arson in the case was later discredited. Webb testified that Willingham had confessed to him while they were held in the same jail, but later recanted that testimony. Prosecutor John Jackson is now under investigation by the Texas State Bar for his handling of the Willingham case and the alleged deal with Webb. Webb's 1996 letter to Jackson said, “Recently, as I was going over my case notes, I noticed that you had told me that the charge of aggravated robbery would be dropped, or lowered, to robbery. . . . You told me this would be done before my transfer to TDC [Texas Department of Corrections].” He added that if Jackson did not take care of the change, Webb might file a court motion, possibly making their deal public. In a recent interview, Webb told The Marshall Project, “I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate. I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so. I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.”

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