Wrongly convicted take center stage at death penalty forum
Dozens of former death row inmates attended Northwestern University's conference on wrongful convictions 
November 15, 1998

CHICAGO (CNN) -- More than 30 former death row inmates who were wrongly convicted gathered Saturday to attend what is believed to be the largest conference on capital punishment since the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.

The former inmates took center stage at the first National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty at Northwestern University law school. The conference attracted more than 1,000 lawyers, academics and anti-death penalty advocates.

One by one, the wrongly convicted stepped onto the stage before the audience and read similar statements about their lives.

"My name is Joseph Burrows," said one man. "The state of Illinois sought to kill me for a murder a did not commit. I was put on death row in 1989. I was released in 1994. If the state had its way, I'd be dead today."

After reading their statements, each placed a sunflower in a vase to symbolize their life regained, then took a seat amid thunderous applause. 

New mission in life for wrongly convicted

Conference organizers have identified 73 men and two women whose death sentences have been reversed and who have been released since the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment was constitutional.

Cruz holds his death warrant
Some of the wrongfully convicted have dedicated their newly found freedom to reversing the 1976 ruling.

Rolando Cruz served on death row in Illinois after he was twice convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicario.

"I prayed in the morning I would be able to sleep at night, I prayed at night I would be able to wake up in the morning," Cruz said of his ordeal on death row. 

Cruz was set free after four county police officers and three prosecutors were indicted for allegedly lying and concealing evidence in the case. Another man, a convicted child killer, later confessed to the crime.

Today, Cruz keeps a framed copy of the death warrant against him in his home as a reminder of his new mission in life.

"I know my path in life leads to straighten out this judicial system, I have to," Cruz told the conference. "I am who I am today because of what they did to me."

Advocates: 'Only the guilty are executed'

In addition to the former death row inmates, some 160 speakers attended the conference. Professor Anthony Amsterdam of New York University School of Law argued the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case Furman vs. Georgia, which led to the abolishment of the death penalty until the court reversed course four years later.

"It is those stories ... which are the crucial histories for us to hear and remember and to insist that the people of this country hear," he said.

But death penalty advocates say that despite such glaring mistakes by the justice system, not one innocent person has been executed since 1976.

"Only the guilty are being executed. This is an attempt on the part of people with agendas to weaken public support for the death penalty," said Robert Pambianco of the Washington Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment. 

The death penalty is on the books in 38 states, as well as the federal government and the military. Nearly 500 people have been put to death since 1976 and more than 3,500 are on death row as of October 1, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

CNN Correspondent Patty Davis, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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