Kirk Bloodsworth and the Demise of the Death Penalty

Kirk Bloodsworth

Kirk Bloodsworth is the first American sentenced to death row who was exonerated by DNA fingerprinting. (Photo: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/GettyImages)

The New York Times today profiles Kirk Bloodsworth, a man who once faced execution for what he describes as “the most brutal murder in Maryland history.” He was innocent, and thanks to the development of DNA testing, was proven so and freed. Equally as important, the real killer was identified.

Kirk Bloodsworth was lucky. Many inmates sentenced to die in this country do not have scientific evidence like DNA with which to prove their innocence.  Only 18 of the 142 death row exonorees over the last 40 years have been set free due to DNA evidence.  During that time, many others have been executed despite doubts about their guilt, but without testable DNA evidence that could prove their innocence to the high standard our courts require.

As long as the death penalty exists, the risk of executing the innocent will be all too real. So Kirk Bloodsworth has made it his mission to abolish the death penalty, both in his home state and – as advocacy director for Witness to Innocence – throughout the country.

Success in Maryland seems closer than ever. And across the country, as people become more familiar with harrowing stories like Kirk’s, support for and use of the death penalty continues to decline.

300th Person Exonerated By DNA Evidence in US

Damon Thibodeaux

Damon Thibodeaux, released after 15 years on death row.

After 15 years of solitary confinement on Louisiana’s death row, Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th person exonerated based on DNA evidence. He had been wrongfully convicted of raping and strangling his 14-year-old step-cousin Crystal Champagne, largely based on a coerced confession.

Five years ago, the Innocence Project and the office of Jefferson Parish DA Paul Connick reopened the investigation into his case and last Friday revealed compelling DNA evidence that was used to exonerate him.

At a halfway house called Resurrection After Exoneration, Thibodeaux observed:

It’s a surreal walk. It’s not something you can prepare yourself for because you’ve been in those (death row) conditions so long.”


Will Georgia Kill Again Despite Doubts?

Update Oct 4: A stay of execution has been granted to Marcus Ray Johnson. Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette has ordered that DNA evidence found last week by Albany police be evaluated. He will hold a follow up hearing in February, 2012.

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Ray Johnson on Wednesday, October 5. This date appeared on the calendar the morning after the Peach State put Troy Davis to death despite unresolved doubts about his guilt.

As in the Troy Davis case, there is no physical evidence linking Johnson to the 1994 murder in Albany, Ga., of Angela Sizemore.  According to Johnson’s lawyers, his case was built on eyewitness testimony from individuals who did not even witness the crime but only placed Johnson with the victim in the hours before the murder.

Expert testimony about the problems with eyewitness identification evidence was not allowed at Johnson’s trial. According to the Innocence Project, 75 percent of wrongful convictions discovered by DNA testing have involved faulty witness identifications.


Texas Schedules One Execution, Tries To Forget Another

Hank Skinner, who resides on death row in Texas, won a case at the U.S. Supreme Court recently.  He got the right to sue, in federal court, for access to DNA evidence he says would exonerate him.  Officials in Gray County, Texas, are in possession of the evidence in question (including vaginal swabs, fingernail scrapings, hairs, and two bloody knives), but have refused to either test it or hand it over for testing.

So, a civil case is now pending in the Northern District of Texas, Amarillo Division.  But that hasn’t stopped Texas from going ahead and setting an execution date anyway.  Skinner is now scheduled to die on November 9.  His lawyers believe the date has been set as “an effort to put pressure on the federal court to act quickly.”

Why not just let the untested evidence be examined?

Perhaps for the same reason the Texas Attorney General recently ruled that the Texas Forensic Science Commission can’t look at any evidence collected before September 2005.  The Commission had been investigating the bogus fire science used to facilitate the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, which took place in 2004.

Apparently, the best way to avoid errors or mistakes (or worse) in Texas justice is to not look for them.

DNA Test Exposes Execution Based on Bad Evidence

Claude Jones was sentenced to death based on one hair.  That hair, prosecutors insisted, was his, and placed him at the scene of a 1989 killing at an East Texas liquor store.  Now, 10 years after his Dec. 7, 2000 execution, the Texas Observer reports that DNA tests have concluded that the hair was the victim’s, not his.  Normally, after someone is put to death, no tests are carried to determine if the execution was wrongful.  These tests were only carried out as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Observer, the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network.

Jones was a career criminal who was involved in a plot to rob the store.  But to execute him, Texas needed to convict him of the murder, and for that they relied of the forensic technique of hair matching, something we now know to be a kind of junk science.    This week’s DNA results, which directly contradict the conclusions drawn by the state’s forensic hair expert,  do not CONCLUSIVELY prove Jones’ innocence in the killing (since they don’t implicate an alternative suspect), but they do mean that there is now no physical evidence tying Jones to the crime for which he was put to death.

In the hours leading up to his execution, Jones had asked for a DNA test of this lone hair, but the courts rejected that request, and then Governor George W. Bush declined to intervene.  Interestingly, it appears that Governor Bush’s lawyers neglected to mention the request for DNA testing in the memo they gave him.  Bush had previously granted a reprieve to allow DNA testing, so we are left to wonder what he might have done in this case, if he had known.

We do know now that, as in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, Claude Jones was convicted on the basis of fundamentally flawed evidence.  And, despite the existence of appeal courts, the clemency process, real DNA science, and other supposed safeguards, his execution could not be stopped.

Will the Supreme Court force Texas to allow scientific testing?

Today the U.S. Supreme Court announced that they will hear the case of Henry “Hank” Skinner. Skinner, on Texas death row since 1993, is arguing that he should be allowed to use federal civil rights law to obtain DNA testing that might establish his innocence.  The hearing will take place this Fall.
Skinner’s guilt has been in question since the time of his conviction, and DNA testing, if allowed, could well provide some answers. Prosecutors have tried to prevent Skinner from getting the evidence tested, while Skinner’s lawyers have tried to use civil rights litigation to gain access to the DNA evidence.  As noted previously in this space, such efforts to suppress scientific inquiry that could resolve doubts and answer questions are nothing new in the Lone Star State.

In 1993, Henry Skinner was convicted in Texas of murdering his girlfriend and her two sons.  Although present when the three victims were murdered, Skinner argues he was intoxicated and passed out, thus incapable of committing the crimes. Skinner continues to seek DNA testing of crime scene evidence that has not yet been scientifically examined, and the testing of which he claims would clear him. In March, Skinner was less than an hour away from execution when the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay in order to have time to consider the petition they have just agreed to hear.

Is Ignorance the Best Policy?


The US Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Henry Skinner, at least temporarily.  He has filed a petition to the Supreme Court, and if the Court declines to hear his petition, the stay will be lifted.  If the petition is accepted, the stay would continue indefinitely and there would be a hearing at the Supreme Court.

Today, Texas is scheduled to execute Henry “Hank” Skinner, despite the fact that readily available evidence in his case has never been tested for DNA which might prove his innocence (or confirm his guilt).  Adopting a policy of willful ignorance is nothing new for officials of the Lone Star State.  Infamously, last week, the Texas State Board of Education voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from the state’s social studies curriculum because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” His name was deleted from a list of famous writers who inspired 18th and 19th century revolutions. He wrote the Declaration of Independence.  

Six years ago, the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham was allowed to proceed, even though Governor Rick Perry and others were warned that the science used to convict Willingham of an arson that killed his three children was seriously flawed, and that the fire might have been an accident.  Last Fall, Governor Perry personally sabotaged an investigation into the science used in Willingham’s case, abruptly replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it was about to hear from a nationally respected forensic fire science expert, Craig Beyler, whose report concluded that the fire should not have been ruled an arson.

Well, now it’s Spring 2010, and Mr. Beyler has still not had a chance to present his findings to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, but last night, he did participate in a panel that discussed the case, and the need for better forensic science, at Georgetown Law School here in DC.  According to the Innocence Project, three states (Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma) are considering legislative resolutions in support of using “solid science” in arson investigations.

Really?  We need legislative resolutions for that?

Sadly, yes. Texas officials not only don’t endorse “solid science,” they continue to actively thwart efforts to improve the quality of forensic investigations.  Executing Henry Skinner while grave doubt hangs over his conviction, when DNA tests could easily remove that doubt, is just the latest example that, for Rick Perry and company, ignorance remains the best policy.