First Death Row Inmate Exonerated Through DNA Returns, Calling for Death Penalty Repeal

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first death row inmate in the country to be exonerated by DNA testing. Bloodsworth, a former Marine, was sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside of Baltimore, Maryland. After DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release in 1993, Bloodsworth began working against capital punishment and for justice reform. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody,” he told the reporter. He is now the advocacy director for Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row inmates who support each other and work to repeal capital punishment. Bloodsworth has returned to Maryland as it considers a bill to end the death penalty. Advocates for repeal cite the declining use of the death penalty as evidence that capital punishment is losing support across the country (see NYT charts using DPIC data). Death sentences have dropped to the lowest levels since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Five states since 2007 have done away with the death penalty.

Texas Court Stays Execution for Fourth Time to Study DNA Evidence

On January 30, a Texas judge stayed the execution of Larry Swearingen, scheduled for February 27. Swearingen's lawyers argued more time was required to complete DNA testing agreed to by the prosecution, which they believe will prove his innocence. This is the fourth such delay he has received. Five forensic experts have concluded that the decomposition of the victim’s body shows she was killed while Swearingen was in jail on unrelated charges, thereby pointing to his innocence. The attorneys are also asking for additional DNA testing. In 2011, changes to the state’s DNA-testing law allowed new testing for evidence not previously analyzed and for evidence that was tested but can now be re-examined with newer technology. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, who is representing Swearingen, said, ”The Texas Legislature has made it clear that DNA testing should be allowed when there is a possibility it could help prove innocence, and the testing Mr. Swearingen is seeking could shed light on many unanswered questions in this case.”

NEW RESOURCES: View DPIC's Latest Infographics as a Slide Show

CA InfographicThe Death Penalty Information Center has introduced a new series of graphs and quotes from prominent individuals, emphasizing various death penalty issues. These infographics have been displayed on Facebook and other outlets in the past few months. We are now offering them serially in a slide show on DPIC's website. The graphics can be individually downloaded for use in various mediums. The slide show is available at this link. The infographics are grouped under a range of topics such as Costs, Race, and Innocence, with more information on each topic available on DPIC's site. You can also find this collection of infographics on Facebook (click on any "photo" and it will enlarge, and you can scroll through the entire series) and on Pinterest. New infographics will be added in the coming months.

NEW VOICES: Conservative Leader Says Its Time to Rethink the Death Penalty

Richard Viguerie has been called the "funding father of the conservative movement," and has helped start such initiatives as the Conservative Digest and the Moral Majority. He was recently interviewed in Sojourners Magazine, where he spoke about his faith-based opposition to capital punishment. He said the issue of innocence was a key problem: "I've become aware that throughout history, many innocent people have been convicted of crimes and executed. There are few things more horrendous than that, taking an innocent life by the power of government. The state is all-powerful in these matters, and it's a very terrifying thing. People do make mistakes." He urged conservatives to take leadership on challenging the death penalty: "I think that a lot of the leadership . . . will probably need to come from the conservatives. We need to make it acceptable to discuss this in the public square. Once conservatives provide that cover for this issue to be an acceptable issue to discuss, debate, and legislate on, I think things can move forward."

EDITORIALS: "America’s Retreat From the Death Penalty"

Following the themes of DPIC's recent 2012 Year End Report, the lead editorial for Jan. 2 in the New York Times concluded that "capital punishment is cruel and unusual" as judged by the country's "evolving standards" of decency and "should be abolished" by the Supreme Court. The Times’s editorial noted the fewer number of states carrying out executions, the lack of any meaningful rationale, the arbitrariness of its application, and the risk of executing the innocent as major problems with the current death penalty. The editors said the primary purposes for imposing capital punishment--deterrence and retribution--"have been seriously undermined by a growing group of judges, prosecutors, scholars and others involved in criminal justice, conservatives and liberals alike." Read the full editorial below.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Federal Judge Orders Virginia To Free Death Row Inmate

On December 26, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Jackson ordered Virginia to unconditionally free death row inmate Justin Wolfe within 10 days and barred the state from using its key witness in any retrial of Wolfe. Wolfe was convicted of conspiracy in the murder of Daniel Petrole, a fellow drug dealer in northern Virginia. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Petrole because of an outstanding debt. In 2010, Barber testified in open court, subject to cross-examination, that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole's death. Barber has also admitted that he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty. Judge Jackson held that Virginia had failed to comply with his earlier order to either free Wolfe or retry him within 120 days. He called the state's case a "bungled prosecution," and concluded that the state's withholding of key evidence about Barber from the defense precluded any retrial of Wolfe using Barber's testimony in any form. Barber, who remains in prison, has recently invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

INNOCENCE: Florida Death Row Inmate Acquitted at Re-trial

On December 21, Seth Penalver was acquitted of all charges and will be freed from Florida's death row, 13 years after being sentenced to death. He was originally charged with a triple murder and armed robbery that occurred in Broward County in 1994.  His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury.  At his second trial in 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court (Penalver v. Florida, No. SC00-1602, Feb. 2, 2006) overturned his conviction because the prosecution had introduced improper evidence at his trial. A co-defendant, Pablo Ibar, was also sentenced to death and remains on death row. A video from the crime scene helped convict Ibar, but images showing another suspect were inconclusive. Penalver has always maintained his innocence. At Penalver's most recent trial, which began 5 months ago, the jury was deadlocked 10-2, and both the prosecution and defense agreed to replace two jurors with alternates who had attended the proceedings. The newly constituted jury began deliberations afresh and found Penalver not guilty of all charges. Penalver is the 142nd person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 24th such person in Florida, the most of any state.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas District Attorneys Say Legislature Should "Seriously Reconsider the Death Penalty"

In a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, former Texas District Attorneys Grant Jones and Sam Millsap (pictured) encouraged the state legislature to reconsider the death penalty. "Both of us have been involved in the execution of men who may well have been innocent," they said, mentioning three cases that "raise serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing the death penalty." Two of the cases, those of Carlos DeLuna and Ruben Cantu, involved possible eyewitness errors. In the third case, Cameron Willingham was executed for setting the house fire that killed his daughters, but new evidence suggests the fire was accidental. Jones and Millsap said Texas is part of a "nationwide trend away from the death penalty" and that "Texans are less willing to take the risk of executing people who are innocent. You see it when they sit on juries. Death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 75 percent since 2002 and remain near historic lows in 2012." They concluded that recent reforms "make the system more accurate, but no one argues that they will catch every mistake....The professionals who administer our justice system cannot guarantee that they will never be without fault." Read the entire op-ed below.