Timothy Johnson was acquitted of murder charges and released from prison in Georgia on December 5, twenty-nine years after being charged with a murder and robbery at a convenience store. Johnson had originally pled guilty to the crimes in exchange for the prosecution's agreement not to seek the death penalty. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2006 because he was not properly informed of his constitutional protection against self-incrimination and his right to confront witnesses against him. The jury deliberated for only about an hour before rendering the acquittal. His family greeted him upon his release. “My heart is overwhelmed for him,” said his uncle, Willie Wilson. “I’m just elated.”
In an op-ed in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tennessean Drew Johnson evoked conservatives' intentions to "protect innocent life, promote financial responsibility and support government programs that really work" in criticizing the death penalty. Johnson, a Senior Fellow at Taxpayers Protection Alliance and founder of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, cited the many exonerations from death row as another reason to challenge capital punishment: "Life is too precious to rely on mistake-prone processes like the death penalty." He noted that the Tennessee Comptroller's Office's found capital trials to be 48% more expensive than life-without-parole trials. Finally, relying on the conservative value of limited government, he concluded, "My view of limited government is not giving the state the power to kill American citizens. There is nothing limited about that authority....It's time that conservative Tennesseans begin to look at the death penalty to consider whether it's consistent with our view of the role of government and decide if retribution and revenge is worth sacrificing our principles, freedoms and liberties." Read the full op-ed below.
In a new report released on December 3, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) called for police departments to adopt new guidelines to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. The chiefs' recommendations include reforms of lineup procedures, videotaping of witness interviews, and formalizing the review of innocence claims. The IACP worked with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project to identify ways to reduce potential sources of error and bias. Walter A. McNiel, police chief of Quincy, Florida, and past president of IACP, said, "At the end of the day, the goal is to reduce the number of persons who are wrongfully convicted. What we are trying to say in this report is, it’s worth it for all of us, particularly law enforcement, to continue to evaluate, slow down, and get the right person." The recommendations take into account research that has found eyewitness error in the majority of cases later overturned by DNA evidence. (Eyewitness error is also a leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases.)
On November 21, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women. Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped. Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”
Jeff Gerritt is the Deputy Editor of the Toledo Blade, a paper which has supported Ohio's death penalty for years. Disagreeing with the paper's Editor, Gerritt called for repeal of the death penalty in the state, noting the risk of executing the innocent, "Wrongly convicting anyone constitutes a horrible injustice, but executing the wrong person eliminates any chance of reversing the error. Nationwide, more than 140 people awaiting execution have been exonerated. Mistakes are far more likely in cases involving poor defendants, who usually don’t have adequate legal counsel." He also pointed to the racial unfairness of the death penalty: "In Ohio, for example, more than half of the death-sentenced defendants since 1981 have been African-Americans, even though African-Americans make up less than 13 percent of the population. Eighteen African-Americans have been executed in Ohio under the 1981 law — 35 percent of the total." He concluded, "The evidence points to one verdict: Capital punishment should die in Ohio." Read the full op-ed below.
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.”
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.
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%.
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.
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).