inmates tell their stories
Death row residents wrongfully convicted
|Sunday, November 15, 1998
BY FRANK GREEN
CHICAGO -- They might have been dead men and women walking into an execution chamber once, but yesterday 28 arguments against the death penalty walked across a stage and celebrated their freedom.
Amid wild applause and the thumping of an African drum, each of the 28 wrongfully convicted former death row residents picked up a sunflower and placed it in a vase before taking their seats in the Thorne auditorium of the Northwestern University School of Law.
"I dare anyone to look at those flowers that they wanted to extinguish and tell us that their death penalty works," said Lawrence C. Marshall, a Northwestern law professor and the organizer of this weekend's Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty Conference.
Each inmate introduced himself or herself to the hundreds of people in the audience.
"My name is Dale Johnston," said one.
"The state of Ohio sought to kill me for a murder I did not commit. I was sentenced to death in 1984 and was released in 1990. Had the state of Ohio gotten its way I would be dead today."
Anthony Amsterdam, who argued the historic Furman v. Georgia case which briefly ended capital punishment in 1972, said: "This is a powerful moment in the history of conscience and nothing we can say in words will add appreciably to the contributions that's been made to it by the wrongfully convicted men and women seated on this stage.
"They have had the strength and courage to survive and the added courage to come here and share their lives and their stories with us. It is those stories about their faith and endurance and the injustices they felt which are the crucial history for us . . . to insist the people of this country hear," Amsterdam said.
Critics point out that wrongful convictions do not necessarily prove innocence and that, in any case, these experiences prove the system works -- those convicted wrongly are freed.
But Marshall said he put together the conference because he believes there are problems with capital punishment that need to be brought to public attention.
Marshall was able to identify 73 men and two women who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976.
"Faces and human beings can do that in a way that rhetoric and case studies and talk can't," said Marshall. "When folks look at these people and hear their stories from their mouths they cannot help but be stirred and say we need to do something to fix it."
None of the 75 former death row inmates is from Virginia.
Virginia governors have commuted the death sentences of five men, but all five remain in prison with either no hope of parole or with long sentences still to serve.
Virginia now has 40 men on death row and has executed 57 since the death penalty was allowed to resume by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.
According to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as of Oct. 1, 1998, the total number of people on death rows across the country is 3,517, a record. Nearly 500 have been executed nationally since 1976 -- a record 74 last year alone.
Because of changes in federal and many state laws, the pace of executions is picking up and there are now fewer resources for the condemned to use to appeal their convictions. That was a concern for conference attendees who stress how easily mistakes can be made in administering capital punishment.
Marshall said that often "what has to go wrong in these cases for the ultimate nightmare to transpire is a whole combination of factors. A whole bunch of different people have to fall down on the job.
It may well be that if any one of them doesn't, then that safeguard will prevent it from happening, he said. "But, tragically, the same kind of phenomenon that leads one player to fall down on the job, often leads others to do the same."
These are high-profile, heinous crimes about which there is a great deal of public pressure to find and convict the killer. "That is one of the very dominant themes in these cases," he said.
"Haste leads to mistakes," he warned. Mistakes include law enforcement overlooking other promising leads.
Often there is no physical evidence. Instead, "you find dubious claims about confessions, you find a lot of jail-house snitches all over the place," he said, referring to jail inmates to whom defendants allegedly confess their capital crimes. The snitches often cut deals with the state in exchange for their testimony.
Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said, "These mistakes are not so isolated as people might think."
Dieter said of the 75: "That's a lot of mistakes and a lot of lives which almost were lost. We presume that there are others where the mistakes are not being found and all of this could be avoided."
There are those who argue that Virginia has executed innocent men, particularly in the cases of Roger Coleman, executed in 1992, and Joseph Roger O'Dell III, in 1997. Attorney General Mark L. Earley is not among the believers.
"Virginians can rest assured that if someone is executed in the commonwealth they're guilty," David Botkins, a spokesman for Earley, said last week.
"Virginia's criminal justice system is a model for the nation and as fail-safe as it gets," said Botkins. "First, prosecutors only seek the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes where evidence is overwhelming.
"Second, we have the most sophisticated forensic experts in the country, as well as deliberative judges and juries who scrutinize every aspect of a capital case. And third, there are numerous avenues of appeal at the state and federal court levels, with gubernatorial clemency built in as an additional safeguard."
Paul Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah and a capital punishment proponent, said, "I'm sure that some of them are innocent, but I'd like to see who all those people are before I agree there's 75."
In any case, Cassell, interviewed by telephone before the conference, said these cases show the system works. "All these people were able to use the system to have their sentences set aside," he said.
"You need to consider the kind of risk that they're highlighting with other kinds of risks as well. In particular, there's a risk when you don't carry out a death penalty . . . that the murderer left alive may escape or otherwise be released from prison and kill again."
Marshall, however, said he has been involved in three cases in which an innocent man was sent to prison and the real killer remained free to kill again.
Nevertheless, Cassell said he believes "this is very much a political effort designed to eliminate the death penalty and not a fair-minded inquiry into the competing" risks.
But Hugo Bedau, a professor at Tufts University, said: "It's an important
thing to bring home the reality of the misery and frustration that so many
prisoners have felt when they are innocent and nobody believes them and
they can't do anything about it."
© 1998, Richmond Newspapers Inc.