Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an "X" or the word "Executed" indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an “X” or the word “Executed” indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

On July 30, 1964, the state of Texas executed Joseph Johnson Jr. He was one of the 21 African-Americans put to death in the Lone Star State in the 1960s, out of 29 executions overall. But his was also to be the last execution in Texas for 18 years.

In the late 1960s, executions in the United States dwindled and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws. New death penalty laws were permitted in 1976 and executions resumed the next year. However, it was not until late 1982, more than 18 years after Johnson’s execution, that Texas would restart its machinery of death.

Since then, Texas has been responsible for, by far, more executions than any other state. On June 26, Texas is scheduled to put Kimberly McCarthy to death – in the process carrying out its 500th execution since reinstatement.

The continued high use of the death penalty in Texas (though at a lower rate than in the so-called “zero tolerance” (1990s), flies in the face of the overall U.S. trend, which has seen death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment dropping steadily. Texas itself is not immune from that trend, as death sentences in the Lone Star State are now at historic lows.


Speed Kills

Although Florida makes more death row mistakes than any other state, Governor Rick Scott is signing more death warrants and he's considering a bill that would shorten appeals (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

Florida Governor Rick Scott (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

Is Governor Rick Scott of Florida trying to speed up his state’s death penalty? He’s signing more death warrants (three executions are currently scheduled over the next month), and he’s considering a bill passed by the legislature that would shorten appeals.

He of course can, and should, veto this bill – known euphemistically as the “Timely Justice Act” – and we should all urge him to do so.

Florida has the nation’s most error-prone death penalty, having seen more death row inmates exonerated (24) than any other state. And it’s possible that a 25th is on the way. With 75 executions since its death penalty was reinstated, Florida has set free one person from death row for every three that have been executed.

The national rate, still appallingly high, is about one for ten. Which, not coincidentally, is the name of an important film project whose organizers have been crisscrossing the country interviewing death row exonerees.

Their most recent interview was with Florida exoneree Juan Melendez, who spent nearly 18 years on the Sunshine State’s death row. In the petition linked to above Juan writes that:


Rushing To Judgment

Kharey Wise was wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a female jogger in Central Park in 1989 and spent 15 years in prison. He was released when the real assailant confessed to the crime (Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images).

Kharey Wise was wrongfully convicted of beating and raping a female jogger in Central Park in 1989 and spent 15 years in prison. He was released when the real assailant confessed to the crime (Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images).

For many who remember the terrible crime, the huge outcry and the media circus around the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case, which was BIG national news, it may have come as a surprise to learn that all 5 of the teenagers convicted were in fact innocent.

But it probably shouldn’t have.

The film The Central Park Five, recently premiered on PBS, offers an important cautionary tale about how a rush to judgment, fueled by all-in media coverage of a particularly heinous crime, increases the chances that criminal justice officials will make critical mistakes, or engage in deliberate misconduct. The Reggie Clemons case, tainted by allegations of police abuse during the investigation and prosecutorial misconduct during the trial, is a reminder that a process compromised in this way can result in a death sentence.

At the other end of the spectrum, a rush to judgment can occur when there is a callous indifference on the part of authorities toward a crime they may perceive as less important because it was committed in a marginalized community. That’s what seems to have happened in the Carlos De Luna case, where an almost certainly innocent man was put to death for a crime another man named Carlos probably committed.


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.

The Fatal Flaws of Texas Justice

texas death chamber death penalty

The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Good News: Californians are currently debating the various dysfunctions that plague their capital punishment system, and could in fact bring that failed experiment to a merciful end on November 6.

Bad News: The political leadership of the state of Texas continues to myopically ignore (or deliberately conceal) the massive flaws in their own heavily used death penalty. And today, Halloween, the Lone Star State is set to kill its 250th prisoner under Governor Rick Perry.

As Amnesty International’s new report points out, Governor Perry, in his first state of the state address in January 2001 (he’s been Governor since December 2000), touted Texas executions, somewhat perversely, for “affirm[ing] the high value we place on innocent life.” But he then did at least say that the state’s justice system “can be better.”


Will Texas Admit It Wrongly Executed Cameron Willingham?

Death chamber in Huntsville, Texas

The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Today, the family of Cameron Todd Willingham filed a petition calling for his posthumous exoneration.  Exoneration, because he is almost certainly innocent. Posthumous because the state of Texas executed him anyway. More info can be found here, courtesy of the Innocence Project.

A Texas father of three, Willingham was convicted and executed for the alleged murder of his three daughters by arson. However, in a 2011 report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that unreliable fire science led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction and 2004 execution. Evidence cited as proof of an intentionally set fire, such as pour patterns, discoloration and “crazed” glass, has since been discredited.

If the petition is accepted and Willingham is posthumously exonerated, he will join with Timothy Cole in Texas, and Joe Arridy and Lena Baker in Colorado and Georgia, who, among others, were wrongfully convicted and executed or died in prison while serving out their sentence. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

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.”


Virginia Rebuked For “Abhorrent” Actions In Death Penalty Case

Justin Wolfe

Justin Wolfe

Owen Barber shot Daniel Petrole to death in Bristow, Virginia on March 15, 2001. Barber was convicted of murder and got a sentence of 60 years. In 2002, Justin Wolfe was sent to Virginia’s death row for paying Barber to kill Petrole. But did he?

Federal courts have examined Wolfe’s murder-for-hire conviction and thrown it out, with unusually strong words for Virginia officials:

“The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to the judicial process.”

The problems?

  1. It was police who suggested to Owen Barber, while threatening him with the death penalty, that he name Justin Wolfe.
  2. After these capital punishment threats, Owen Barber did say that Wolfe hired him for the killing, but then recanted afterwards.
  3. Barber’s testimony was the only direct evidence linking Wolfe to the crime.
  4. The prosecution “knowingly presented false testimony by Barber.”
  5. The police report that included the death penalty threats and suggestions to name Wolfe was never turned over to Wolfe’s defense.


Empowering Death Row Exonerees To Tell Their Stories

Ray Krone was wrongly convicted and sentenced to die because of an expert witness on bite mark evidence. Despite the fact that Ray had an alibi, and that the other evidence at the crime scene did not point to him, the jury was swayed by this so-called expert.

What the jury did not know, however, was that the prosecution paid this expert around $50,000, ten times the total amount Ray had to defend himself. He spent 10 years in prison before his conviction was finally overturned.


Poll Shows More People in US Question Morality of Death Penalty

stop the execution death penalty protesters

Protesters try to stop an execution in Texas © Scott Langley

This May, a Gallup poll showed that only 58% of respondents find the death penalty morally acceptable, a 7% drop from last year and the lowest number since the morality question was first asked in 2001.

This follows a 2010 poll from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) that showed, when given choices, two-thirds support alternatives to the death penalty.  Gallup’s non-morality based poll on the death penalty in 2011, which didn’t offer alternatives, still showed the lowest support for capital punishment since 1972.  That poll was conducted soon after the controversial September 21st execution of Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt.

The question of innocence

Is the drop in belief in the morality of the death penalty related to a growing belief that the innocent can be executed?  There have been 140 people exonerated from U.S. death row since 1973.