POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Florida Supreme Court Overturns Conviction and Death Sentence Based on New Evidence

In a 5-2 decision, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the murder and sexual battery convictions and death sentence of Roy Swafford (pictured), who has been on death row since 1988. The court said in its decision that "No witness, DNA, or fingerprints link Swafford to the victim or the murder weapon. The newly discovered forensic evidence regarding the alleged sexual battery changes the very character of the case and affects the admissibility of evidence that was heard by the jury." Retesting of evidence from the case indicated that, contrary to earlier tests, a chemical found in semen was not present on the victim, suggesting that she was not sexually assaulted before the murder. The prosecution had said the assault motivated the murder, so the new evidence removes the likely motive. The Supreme Court also said that jurors did not hear evidence about another suspect who matched descriptions of the murderer, owned a car that matched the one used in abducting the victim, and owned the same type of gun used in the murder. Swafford's attorney, Terri Backhus, summed up the decision, saying, “Not only did the court say he gets a new trial on the sexual battery and the murder, but the Supreme Court said the trial court should grant a motion for judgment of acquittal on the sexual battery.”

NEW VOICES: Kansas Republican Says 'Nothing Conservative About the Death Penalty'

Chase Blasi is on the Board of the Kansas Young Republicans and president of the Colwich City Council. In a recent op-ed in the Witchita Eagle, Blasi challenged the idea that "if you are conservative you must favor the death penalty." Instead he noted, "repeal of the death penalty is an important step for promoting a culture of life. The death penalty is simply not necessary to protect life, given that there are alternatives such as life in prison without parole available to keep society secure." He called the death penalty "an ineffective government program that wastes millions in taxpayer dollars," and concluded, "If we, as conservatives, are serious about cutting costs and promoting a culture of life, then our position on the death penalty is a no-brainer. Repeal it." Read the full op-ed below.

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty At Its Lowest in 40 Years

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 A recent Gallup poll found the lowest level of support for the death penalty in America since 1972. Gallup's October poll measured Americans' abstract support at 60%, a 20-percentage point decline from 1994, when 80% of respondents were in favor of the death penalty for those convicted of murder. Support for the death penalty differed sharply among those who identified themselves with a political party: 81% of Republicans supported the death penalty, while only 47% of Democrats and 60% of Independents favored it. However, support among all three groups has dropped in the last 25 years, with the Democrats’ support declining 28 percentage points since its peak in 1994. This poll measured the public’s support for capital punishment in theory, without any comparison to other punishments. When Gallup and other polls have offered respondents a choice of the proper punishment for murder - the death penalty or life in prison without parole - respondents are about evenly split, with less than 50% supporting the death penalty. Gallup's release noted that the decline in support may be linked to the issue of innocence, "The current era of lower support may be tied to death penalty moratoriums in several states beginning around 2000 after several death-row inmates were later proven innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted." In the past 10 years, the percentage of Americans who believe the death penalty is applied fairly has dropped from 60% to 52%.

INNOCENCE: Another Exoneration from Death Row--Reginald Griffin of Missouri

Reginald Griffin, a former death row inmate from Missouri, became the 143rd person in the U.S. to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, after the state dismissed all charges related to his death sentence on October 25. Griffin had been sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate in 1983. His conviction was overturned in 2011 by the Missouri Supreme Court (Griffin v. Denney) because the state had withheld critical evidence. Griffin's conviction relied on the testimony of two jailhouse informants who received benefits in exchange for their testimony. Prosecutors withheld evidence that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, immediately after the stabbing. Both of Griffin's co-defendants consistently said the third person involved in the crime was Smith, not Griffin. Cyndy Short, the current lead attorney for Griffin, said, "Reggie and his family are overjoyed. This has been a massive weight upon them all for three decades." Griffin is the 4th person exonerated from death row in Missouri, and the first in the country in 2013.

STUDIES: Prosecutorial Misconduct in Death Penalty Cases

In a four-part series on the conduct of prosecutors in capital cases, The Arizona Republic examined allegations by appellate attorneys that prosecutorial misconduct occurred in nearly half of the state’s capital cases since 2002. The study found that nearly half of the allegations were validated by the Arizona Supreme Court, though only two death sentences were vacated. The paper found there were seldom consequences to prosecutors for misconduct. Of all the allegations, only two resulted in prosecutors being punished: one was disbarred, the other suspended from legal practice. According to the Republic’s examination, six different prosecutors who were named "Prosecutor of the Year" since 1990 were later found to have engaged in misconduct or inappropriate behavior during capital trials. Misconduct played a key role in a death sentence and conviction that were recently overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Debra Milke, who had spent nearly 24 years in custody, was recently freed because the state failed to turn over important records to the defense. She may face a re-trial. The court underscored the important role of prosecutors in ensuring a fair trial: “(T)he Constitution requires a fair trial, and one essential element of fairness is the prosecution's obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence.” In another instance of prosecutorial misconduct, Ray Krone's conviction in Arizona was overturned in 1995 and he was eventually exonerated in 2002. (pictured l., receiving an award in 2013 from Kirk Bloodsworth of Witness to Innocence).

EDITORIALS: Possible Innocence Case Deserves DNA Testing

A recent editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) called for DNA testing in the death penalty case of Tyrone Noling. Noling has been on death row for 17 years. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of three friends who have since recanted their stories, claiming they were coerced by the prosecution. No physical evidence linked Noling to the crime, and he has passed a polygraph test. Nolling is requesting the testing of additional evidence that could finally prove he was not involved in the crime. The editors wrote, "An opportunity exists to clear up the many uncertainties about whether Tyrone Noling murdered the Hartigs. More, the state must take necessary care to ensure that Ohio avoids the grievous mistake of executing an innocent man." Read full editorial below.

NEW VOICES: Former Oregon Chief Justice Recommends Repeal of Death Penalty

Edwin J. Peterson, who served as the Chief Justice of Oregon's Supreme Court for many years, recently recommended ending the state's death penalty. Judge Peterson voted as a citizen to reinstate the death penalty in Oregon in 1978 and in 1984, but he now believes the capital punishment system is broken: "We have an inefficient, ineffective, dysfunctional system," he said. "There is widespread dissatisfaction.... Our system has failed. Recognize it and repeal Oregon’s death penalty." He noted that taxpayers are supporting a system that yields no results: "There is little reason to believe that any defendant now on Oregon’s Death Row will ever be executed. [Yet] we taxpayers pay nearly all of the expenses of prosecuting and defending death-penalty cases." Read the full op-ed below.

OP-ED: "Changes are long overdue for Texas' clemency process"

Michael Morton (pictured), who was released after 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, called for reforms in Texas's clemency process. In a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Morton and Scheck highlighted the case of Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004 despite serious doubts about his guilt.  According to the authors, it is now understood that investigators who believed that Willingham committed arson were mistaken.  They also noted that a recent investigation uncovered that a recantation made by a witness who initially claimed that Willingham confessed to the crime was never made available to Willingham's lawyers or placed in the court file. Morton and Scheck wrote, "The clemency process that failed to discover Willingham's innocence in 2004 remains essentially unchanged. A recent study by a committee of the American Bar Association found that the Board of Pardons and Paroles' consideration of capital cases is woefully inadequate - Texas does not meet any of the eleven minimum guidelines for an adequate process." They concluded, "No one can endorse a system that allows the execution of an innocent person. And we need to do everything in our power to make sure that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the last stop in our criminal justice system, has the resources and the procedures necessary to do its job." Read full text of the op-ed below.