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 executionsince 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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.