Innocence

Execution Approaching While Key DNA Evidence Remains Untested

UPDATE: Execution stayed by Mississippi Supreme Court. Since 1994, Willie Manning, an inmate on Mississippi's death row, has been requesting DNA testing of critical evidence recovered from the crime scene of the murders that led to his conviction. Manning's conviction was based mainly on circumstantial evidence. In April the Mississippi Supreme Court narrowly (5-4) denied the DNA testing being requested.  Earlier, the same Court had overturned Manning’s conviction because his lawyers were not allowed to fully cross-examine the informant in the case, but the Court reconsidered its decision and let the conviction stand. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the New York-based Innocence Project strongly supported the testing in an op-ed in the Clarion Ledger: "While people can differ on whether the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment, nearly everyone would agree that it should be used only in those cases where we are certain of guilt. DNA testing could provide that certainty or prove, as Manning insists, that he is innocent." Manning's lawyers have asked Governor Phil Bryant to issue a stay and order the testing. He is scheduled to be executed on May 7.

EDITORIALS: Miami Herald Calls on Governor to Block Fast-Track Executions

An editorial in the Miami Herald called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto a bill recently passed by the legislature requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. The editorial listed several death row inmates who were exonerated after spending more than 10 years on death row, and noted, “All of them might have been executed if the legislation that's heading to the governor's desk had been the law.” The paper urged Gov. Scott to block the legislation and wait for a committee appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to study the state’s judicial system to release its findings. The editorial concluded, “If the point is to reduce the stay on death row to less than a decade, it's the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote.” Read the Editorial below.

RECENT LEGISLATION: Texas Legislature Examining Problems of Innocence and Racial Bias

Two bills under consideration in Texas aim to address issues in the state’s death penalty. House Bill 2458 would allow defendants to appeal their death sentences if they can prove that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. Statistical evidence of bias can be used to support such a claim. Similar bills, referred to as the Racial Justice Act, have been considered in other states. Testimony in favor of the bill mentioned the case of Duane Buck, an African American who was sentenced to death after a psychologist testifed that Buck would likely be a future danger to society because of his race. On April 17, the Texas Senate unanimously passed SB 1292, a bill that requires the state to collect and test all DNA evidence prior to a trial in which the defendant could receive the death penalty. The bill now heads to the House.

NEW VOICES: PBS Airing of "The Central Park Five" Underscores Problem of Innocence

George F. Will, conservative commentator of the Washington Post, recently drew a lesson about the death penalty from the documentary The Central Park Five, which airs on PBS on Tuesday, April 16. Will wrote, “[T]his recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes.” The Central Park Five tells the story of five juvenile defendants (four African Americans and one Hispanic) who were convicted of the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park, New York, despite the absence of DNA evidence linking them to the crime. Four of the five gave confessions, which they later said were the result of police intimidation. All were sentenced to prison. In 2002, after a recommendation from the Manhattan District Attoreny, their convictions were vacated.

INNOCENCE: Alabama Lawmakers Unanimously Vote to Pardon Scottsboro Boys

On April 4, the Alabama House of Representatives voted 103-0 in favor of a bill to posthumously pardon the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-0, and Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it. All but one of the group were sentenced to death by all-white juries with virtually no legal representation. The military had to protect them from angry mobs. They lingered on death row for years. Eventually, after several arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to counsel and proper selection of juries, all of them were freed without execution. Through the years of appeals, one of the women who accused the group of rape recanted and said the claim was a lie. Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said, "Their lives were ruined by the convictions. By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago." The last of the group of defendants died in 1989. (photo: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA).

SENTENCING: Virginia's Use of the Death Penalty Sharply Declines

Virginia’s death row population has significantly decreased from a peak of 57 inmates in 1995 to 8 presently. Only two inmates have been added to death row in nearly five years. David Bruck (pictured), director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University School of Law, remarked, "The process has largely ground to a halt. That is a huge development." He suggested the decline in death sentences is due to a greater acceptance of alternative punishments and the realization that mistakes can be made in capital convictions. Bruck said the DNA-based exoneration and freeing of Earl Washington, Jr., who was once nine days from execution, raised public awareness of the death penalty’s fallibility. Stephen Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, agreed: “One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is that we have an imperfect system which will always be imperfect. We're going to make mistakes, and the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment.”

MULTIMEDIA: "One For Ten" Introduces Documentaries on Death Row Exonerees

One For Ten is a new collection of documentary films telling the stories of innocent people who were on death row in the U.S. The first film of the series is on Ray Krone, one of the 142 people who have been exonerated and freed from death row since 1973. Krone was released from Arizona’s death row in 2002 after DNA testing showed he did not commit the murder for which he was sentenced to death 10 years earlier. Krone was convicted based largely on circumstantial evidence and bite-mark evidence, alleging his teeth matched marks on the victim. The film is narrated by Danny Glover.  All the films will be free and may be shared under a Creative Commons license.

NEW VOICES: Former Virginia Executioner Calls for End of Death Penalty

Jerry Givens spent 17 years as the correctional officer in charge of Virginia’s electrocutions. During his tenure, he carried out 62 executions. He now strongly opposes the death penalty. The thought that he might execute an innocent person was a major factor in his change of heart. “The only thing I can do is pray to God to forgive me if I did,” Givens said. “But I do know this — I will never do it again.” The pending execution of Earl Washington, Jr. had a significant impact on Givens. Washington, with an IQ of 69, confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of a woman in Culpeper, Virginia. Many years later, DNA tests provided compelling evidence that Washington was not the killer, and he was eventually pardoned.  Givens remarked, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.” The risk of executing an innocent person is also eroding public confidence in capital punishment. Virginia has changed from a state that had 13 executions in one year to having only 1 execution in two years, and less than 1 death sentence per year in the last five.

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