Innocence

President Obama Orders Review of Death Penalty

President Obama has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to review the application of the death penalty in the U.S. following the failed execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. The President noted concerns about innocence and racial bias: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.” The Department of Justice was already reviewing federal execution protocols. Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said, “At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues.” The President called the events in Oklahoma, in which the inmate regained consciousness and apprarently suffered before dying of a heart attack, "deeply disturbing."

STUDIES: The Problem of Innocence Is Worse Than Was Thought

On April 28 a study published in the prestigous Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that far more innocent people have been sentenced to death than those found through the legal process. According to the study, many innocent defendants are probably not being identified because they were taken off death row and given a lesser sentence. The rate of exonerations for those sentenced to death would be over twice as high if all cases were given the heightened scrutiny often accorded to those who remain on death row. The authors of "The Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who are Sentenced to Death" concluded: "[A] conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions of defendants sentenced to death in the United States from 1973 through 2004 [is] 4.1%." The percentage of death row inmates who were actually exonerated during the time of the study was only 1.6%. Professor Samuel Gross (pictured) of the University of Michigan Law School, one of the authors of the study, pointed to the gravity of the problem: “Since 1973, nearly 8,500 defendants have been sentenced to death in the United States, and 138 of them have been exonerated. Our study means that more than 200 additional innocent defendants have been sentenced to death in that period. Most of these undiscovered innocent capital defendants have been resentenced to life in prison, and then forgotten.”

STUDIES: "Predicting Erroneous Convictions"

A new study published by Professors Jon Gould (l.) of American University and Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco, along with other researchers, examined factors that have contributed to wrongful convictions in criminal cases. The study compared cases in which "guilty" defendants were eventually exonerated to those in which defendants were not convicted in the first place. The researchers found a number of variables that separated wrongful convictions from so-called "near misses," including the criminal history of the defendant, withheld exculpatory evidence, errors with forensic evidence, and inadequate representation. With respect to the death penalty, the researchers found that states with higher use of the death penalty were more likely to produce wrongful convictions, even in cases that did not involve capital punishment. The authors offered a possible explanation for this effect, saying, "In a punitive legal culture, police and prosecutors may be more interested in obtaining a conviction at all costs (leading to greater Brady violations, etc.), and community pressure may encourage overly swift resolutions to cases involving serious crimes like rape and murder." The researchers recommended changes to the justice system to limit wrongful convictions, including better funding for indigent defense, earlier testing of forensic evidence, and subjecting forensic labs to peer review.

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

Japan Frees World's Longest-Serving Death Row Inmate; Likely Innocent

On March 27, a court in Japan suspended the death sentence and ordered the release and retrial of Iwao Hakamada, who had been imprisoned for 48 years, mostly on death row. The 78-year-old man is the world's longest-serving death row inmate. Presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama said, "It is unbearably unjust to prolong detention of the defendant any further. The possibility of his innocence has become clear to a respectable degree." Hakamada was convicted of the 1966 murder of the family for whom he was a live-in employee, but the court said new DNA evidence suggested investigators fabricated evidence. Clothing that investigators said the culprit was wearing did not fit Hakamada, and was stained with blood that did not match his DNA.

Instead of an Execution, Mississippi Supreme Court Throws Out the Conviction

In a case in which the state's Attorney General had asked for an execution date of March 27, the Mississippi Supreme Court instead threw out Michelle Byrom's murder conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial just four days later. The case was plagued with numerous problems, including inadequate representation, critical evidence not presented to the jury, confessions by another defendant, and the prosecution's lack of confidence in its own story of what actually happened. In its order reversing the conviction, the court described Byrom's case as "extraordinary and extremely rare." Prosecutors said that Byrom hired a friend of her son's to murder her husband, despite several confessions from her son, who said he killed his father because he snapped from years of abuse. The jury that convicted Michelle Byrom never heard evidence from a forensic psychologist who had told the judge that Byrom's son had confessed to the murder, nor were they presented with two letters from Byrom's son describing why he murdered his father. Byrom's son and his friend pled guilty to conspiracy in the crime and are now free after serving time in prison. David Voisin, an attorney advising Byrom's legal team, said, "We are grateful to the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing the extreme injustice in this case and taking the swift and extraordinary step of vacating Michelle Byrom's conviction so that she can have a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court."

Pew Poll Finds Opposition to Death Penalty Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities


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Further analysis of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that support for the death penalty was significantly lower among some racial and ethnic minorities than for the general population. More Hispanics oppose the death penalty (50%) than support it (40%), and the same is true of African Americans, with only about a third (36%) favoring capital punishment and a majority (55%) opposing it. Democrats are about evenly split, with 45% in favor and 47% opposed, while 71% of Republicans support it. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics were among those most in opposition to capital punishment (58% and 54% opposed, respectively). Support was lower among younger Americans; for those in the age group 18-29, only 51% supported the death penalty. Overall, 55% of Americans in the poll supported the death penalty, the lowest level since Pew began polling on this question in 1996. Pew said greater public awareness of wrongful convictions and lower crime rates may be partly responsible for the declining support of capital punishment. 

BOOKS: Quest for Justice - Defending the Damned

In his book, "Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned," Richard Jaffe explores the problems of the American death penalty system through his experience as a capital defense attorney in Alabama. During the past twenty years, Jaffe has helped secure the release of three death row inmates: Randall Padgett and Gary Drinkard, who were fully exonerated, and James Cochran, who was cleared of murder charges, but pleaded guilty to a related robbery charge. In his book, Jaffe wrote, "I always keep in mind the maxim that history will judge a society by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Although most would assume that applies to the poor and the elderly, all one has to do is look at those who end up on death row: an overwhelming number are poor, disenfranchised and suffer from some mental defect or even brain damage." Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard Law Professor, said of Quest for Justice, "This book tells the stories of people once convicted and sentenced to death and later acquitted of the same charges. It tells how it happened, shows the criminal courts are fallible and that poor people facing the death penalty may live or die depending on the competence and dedication of the lawyers appointed to defend them."

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