The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 with a limited statute for murders in the course of a drug conspiracy. It was expanded to 60 offenses in 1994 and included crimes such as carjacking and drive-by shootings if a death results. During the Clinton administration, no one from a non-death penalty state was sentenced to death. Since 2000, there have been at least 5 individuals in non-death states who have received death sentences: 2 in Iowa (Dustin Honken and Angela Johnson), 1 in Massachusetts (Gary Sampson), 1 in Michigan (Marvin Gabrion), and most recently, 1 in Vermont (Donald Fell). A total of 40 people are now under a federal death sentence (in some cases, a judge has not formally imposed the sentence).
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney recently testified that the proposed "foolproof" death penalty statute he hopes will bring capital punishment back to the state does not eliminate the possibility that an innocent person could be executed. Romney acknowledged to members of the joint House and Senate Judiciary Committee that the proposed law cannot protect the state against the potential for human error, stating, "A 100 percent guarantee? I don't think there's such a thing in life. Except perhaps death - for all of us."
Representative Michael A. Costellow, one of the lawmakers who questioned Romney during the hearing, said that the Governor's admission "does knock out the initial premise" that the plan is foolproof, adding, "I think they put the best and the brightest together to try to come up with a foolproof policy, and it isn't foolproof."
More than a decade after juvenile offender Martin Soto Fong and two other men were tried and sentenced to death in Arizona, questions about Fong's guilt linger and are underscored by the fact that he is the only one of the three men to remain convicted of the crime. The prosecutor who won their convictions, Kenneth Peasley, was disbarred last year for intentionally eliciting false testimony to win capital murder convictions in the re-trials of Soto's co-defendants, Christopher McCrimmon and Andre Minnit. McCrimmon was aquitted in a retrial and Minnit was released when the Arizona Supreme Court vacated his conviction.
In ordering Peasley's disbarment, a rarity for someone of his stature, the state Supreme Court stated, "We cannot conceive of a more serious injury, not just to the defendants but to the criminal justice system, than a prosecutor's presentation of false testimony in capital murder cases." Though Fong was removed from death row after the Supreme Court outlawed the execution of juvenile offenders earlier this year, he remains in jail and those familiar with Peasley's misconduct believe Fong may be innocent. "I do not believe McCrimmon and Minnit did this. I have seriously strong doubts about Fong," notes Karen Clark, the State Bar of Arizona attorney who headed the effort to disbar Peasley. Clark states that among the problems with Soto's case are 2 police reports covering the same anonymous tip that name different suspects.
The Reverend Carroll Pickett, former chaplain on death row in Texas:
Ninety-five times, I personally walked a man who was sentenced to die to the death chamber in Texas. From the very first person executed by lethal injection, through 16 years of walking those eight steps from the holding cell in the death house to the impeccably clean gurney in the death chamber, I led a man - some were older, some convicted in their teens, some mentally ill, some very hardened by life and, I fully know, some who were innocent.
A variety of legal experts and national organizations have expressed
strong concerns about a bill introduced in Congress that would greatly
limit federal review of death penalty cases.
The American Bar Association called for rejection of the legislation:
Following an investigation indicating that Missouri may have executed an innocent man for the 1980 murder of Quintin Moss, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that the case was filled with problems that are typical of wrongful convictions in capital cases. Herbert stated that St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce has taken "the extraordinary step of officially reopening a murder investigation after the defendant was executed," adding that it is difficult to prove that an innocent person has been executed because official investigations cease once the death penalty has been carried out. Herbert wrote:
If Larry Griffin were being tried today for the murder of Quintin Moss, he would almost certainly be acquitted. The evidence is overwhelming that he did not kill Mr. Moss.
But Mr. Griffin is not being tried today. He has already been executed for the murder.
A year-long investigation by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has uncovered evidence that Larry Griffin may have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed by the state of Missouri on June 21, 1995. Griffin maintained his innocence until his death, and investigators say his case is the strongest demonstration yet of an execution of an innocent man. The report notes that a man injured in the same drive-by shooting that claimed the life of Quintin Moss says Griffin was not involved in the crime, and the first police officer on the scene has given a new account that undermines the trial testimony of the only witness who identified Griffin as the murderer. Based on its findings, the NAACP has supplied the prosecution with the names of three men it suspects committed the crime, and all three of the suspects are currently in jail for other murders. Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce said she has reopened the investigation and will conduct a comprehensive review of the case over the next few months. "There is no real doubt that we have an innocent person. If we could go to trial on this case, if there was a forum where we could take this to trial, we would win hands down," stated University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who supervised the investigation into Griffin's case.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted a last minute stay for Robin Lovitt, who was scheduled for execution at 9 PM on Monday (July 11) in Virginia. The Court did not give a reason for the stay, but Lovitt stated that he would have been able to show his innocence if state officials had not destroyed DNA evidence from his case after his trial. (See item below posted July 8). (Associated Press, July 11, 2005). See also Innocence.