The Angolite Tells the Story of a Wrongful Execution in Colorado

A recent issue of The Angolite, a magazine published by prison inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, highlights the story of Joe Arridy, who was executed in 1939 in Colorado. Arridy was sentenced to death in 1937 for the murder and sexual assault of a teenage girl. After his execution, facts pointing to Arridy’s innocence gradually emerged. New evidence showed that he had been coerced into giving a false confession, that he was not in town at the time of the crime, and that another person had admitted to committing the crime. In addition, Arridy had an IQ of 46, and was easily led by police. One psychiatrist, Dr. B.L. Jefferson, testified that Arridy had the mind of a child of about six years old and was not capable in aiding in his defense or of giving a reliable confession. On death row, Arridy spent his days playing with toys and requested ice cream for his last three meals. Witnesses say he stepped into the gas chamber still grinning like a little boy.  On January 7, 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted Arridy a full and unconditional posthumous pardon.

ARTICLES: The Tensions Between Protecting the Innocent and the Objectives of Capital Punishment

A recent article in the Justice Quarterly by Professor James Acker (pictured) and Rose Bellandi of the University at Albany, New York, examined whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between recent reforms to prevent the execution of the innocent and the traditional goals of capital punishment. The authors studied recent changes to Maryland’s death penalty statute that were designed to reduce the risk of wrongful executions while trying to maintain the death penalty for the most heinous crimes.  Maryland's law requires either biological evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a video conclusively linking the defendant to a murder as a prerequisite to seeking a death sentence.  The authors concluded that such a statute will not impose the death penalty on the worst offenders, but only on those whose cases contain certain evidence of guilt:  “No one supports executing the innocent. Yet, many support executing those who are guilty of heinous crimes. How to guard against the former risk while advancing the latter objective evokes special challenges, if not paradoxes of sufficient magnitude that suggest that the twin goals defy reconciliation.”  Acker and Bellandi further add that even these protections will not be infallible, and that the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment recommended abolition of the death penalty.

INNOCENCE: Op-Ed--"You Can't Fix the Death Penalty"

In a June 1 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Columbia University law professor James Liebman (pictured) pointed to his recent investigation of a likely innocent man executed in Texas to illustrate the danger of a "cheaper and quicker" death penalty.  Such proposals for reform are “a terrible and dangerous idea,” Liebman said.  Based on his research into the prosecution of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in 1989, DeLuna’s case “flew through the courts.”  He was arrested and executed within six years, which is half of the national average for capital cases. More than two decades later, an extensive investigation of the case led Prof. Liebman to conclude that DeLuna was almost certainly innocent. “Only a more careful - and consequently longer and more expensive prosecution and appeals process might have prevented the tragedy,” he wrote. He further concluded, “The flaws in the system that condemned DeLuna — faulty eyewitness testimony, poor legal representation and evidence withheld from the defense — continue to put innocent people at risk of execution…. DeLuna's case disproves the myth that we can save the death penalty by generating more 'quick and dirty' executions. The death penalty is broken. At great effort and expense, states such as California have tried every measure to fix it, but they have failed. The only solution is to end it.”

NEW RESOURCES-PODCAST: Former Death Row Inmate Freed in Alabama

In the latest edition of the Death Penalty Information Center's podcasts, we interview attorney Jennifer Whitfield (pictured) of Covington & Burling, who worked to secure the release of former death row inmate Larry Smith in Alabama. Mr. Smith was sentenced to death in 1995 for a murder related to a robbery. His conviction hinged on a statement he made after 4 hours of interrogation. In violation of police guidelines, his interrogation was not recorded, and Mr. Smith later said his admission of involvement in the crime was coerced and influenced by threats made to prosecute his wife. No physical evidence or eyewitness account linked Mr. Smith to the murder, and a witness, who said Smith hatched a plan to rob the victim, was later implicated in planning the crime himself. In 2007, an Alabama Circuit Court ordered a retrial, and a plea deal was reached this year (April 6, 2012) that allowed Mr. Smith to be released after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. The murder charges against him were dropped.  In the podcast interview, Ms. Whitfield discusses the failures that led to Mr. Smith's conviction and how some of those problems, including inadequate representation and coerced confessions, affect the death penalty system at large.  Listen to the podcast.

INNOCENCE: Leading Researchers Release Report and National Registry of Exonerations in U.S.

On May 21, the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University announced the start of the first National Registry of Exonerations and released an extensive report discussing the problem of wrongful convictions in the U.S.  The Registry contains information on nearly 900 people who were falsely convicted of serious crimes, including many who were sentenced to death, and who have been exonerated since 1989.  It is by far the largest collection of such cases and will be updated on an ongoing basis.  The authors believe that many more such cases exist, including over 1,000 cases from "group exonerations" involving official misconduct that are discussed in the report.  The report accompanying the registry, Exonerations in the United States, 1989−2012, was written principally by Professor Samuel Gross (pictured) of Michigan's Law School.  It discusses the most common errors that led to these miscarriages of justice. Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said, “The National Registry of Exonerations gives an unprecedented view of the scope of the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States.  This is a good start–a milestone–but there’s a long way to go before we have a complete picture of wrongful convictions in the United States.” Prof. Gross added, “The more we learn about false convictions, the better we’ll be at preventing them – or if that fails, at finding and correcting them as best we can after the fact.”

EDITORIALS: The Fallibility of Forensic Evidence Argues Against the Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska concluded that experience with inaccurate evidence from crime labs shows that the death penalty cannot be trusted in the taking of life.  The paper called for the repeal of the death penalty based on a case in which the state's CSI director tampered with evidence in a murder case. Recently, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the conviction of former CSI chief David Kofoed for planting evidence in a double murder. Kofoed placed a speck of blood in a car belonging to a suspect, which resulted in two innocent men being held in jail for several months. The editorial said such crime-lab error has also been found elsewhere: “You will be - or should be - appalled at the number of times that crime labs turn out to be providing inaccurate and phony evidence. The problems crop up in New York, San Francisco, Houston and many points in between. Sometimes the problem is sloppiness. Sometimes technicians are manufacturing evidence deliberately. Sometimes the science itself turns out to be untrustworthy.” The editorial cited a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences that criticized some of the science behind crime lab testimony. The report found that, other than DNA technology, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” and that, “Substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people.”  The editorial concluded, "The fallibility of the criminal justice system has been demonstrated again and again. Innocent people have been executed in the past and will be in the future," and thus people should "support repeal of the death penalty."  Read full editorial below.

INNOCENCE: New Evidence That Texas May Have Executed an Innocent Man

In one of the most comprehensive investigations ever undertaken about the execution of a possibly innocent defendant, Professor James Liebman and other researchers at Columbia University Law School have published a groundbreaking report on the case of Carlos DeLuna (pictured), who was executed in Texas in 1989.  This "Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution" is being published today (May 15) in Columbia's Human Rights Law Review.  Prof. Liebman concluded DeLuna was innocent and was wrongly convicted "on the thinnest of evidence: a single, nighttime, cross-ethnic eyewitness identification and no corroborating forensics." DeLuna maintained his innocence from the time of his arrest until his execution, claiming that the actual culprit was Carlos Hernandez, who looked so similar to DeLuna that friends and family had mistaken photos of the two men for each other. Prosecutors called Hernandez a "phantom" of DeLuna's imagination, although Hernandez was known to police and prosecutors because of his history of violent crimes, including armed robberies and an arrest for a murder similar to the one for which DeLuna was executed. Liebman's investigation found that Hernandez "spent years bragging around Corpus Christi that he, not his tocayo - his namesake and 'twin' - Carlos DeLuna, killed Wanda Lopez."

STUDIES: Research Finds Lack of Accountability in Texas Misconduct Cases

A recent study released by the Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition and conducted by the Veritas Initiative of California found that although Texas prosecutors committed error in 91 cases between 2004 and 2008, none of those cases resulted in disciplinary action against the prosecutor. Misconduct was found most often in murder cases. Courts upheld the conviction in 72 of the cases and reversed it in 19. At a symposium discussing the research, two men who were wrongfully convicted because of prosecutorial misconduct, Michael Morton of Texas and John Thompson of Louisiana, called for increased accountability in such instances. Thompson spent 16 years on death row and was eventually freed, but a financial judgment he had won against the District Attorney's office was reversed.  In Morton's case, a court of inquiry scheduled to begin in September will investigate whether the prosecutor (who is now a judge) committed criminal misconduct in withholding evidence, resulting in Morton's being wrongly imprisoned for 25 years. Cookie Ridolfi, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and one of the researchers for the study, said, “Most prosecutorial misconduct is not intentional, but we know from John Thompson’s and Michael Morton’s cases that when it happens, the consequences can be devastating. What’s clear from this data is that we’re not doing nearly enough to document the scope of the problem and the disciplinary systems as they currently exist are vastly inadequate.”