How Bad Is The U.S. Wrongful Conviction Problem?

richard miles exonorated

Richard Miles was convicted of murder in Dallas in 1996 and released in 2009 after it was discovered prosecutors hid reports implicating other suspects. (Image via

Our criminal justice system is less than perfect, a non-controversial fact which is one of the reasons we oppose the use of an absolute and irreversible punishment like execution.

The new National Registry of Exonerations, produced by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools, provides a glimpse of just how imperfect.  It lists almost 900 known exonerations since 1989.  Around 100 of those listed had been sent to death row; the remainder had been sent to prison for everything from homicide to white collar crimes.

The Registry’s accompanying report (p. 84, Table 18), documents another 1,170 exonerations from a group of major law enforcement scandals, mostly involving drug crimes.

This snapshot of known exonerations is revealing.  According to the report summary, the chief causes of the wrongful convictions were faulty or perjured witness testimony and official misconduct, though almost a quarter involved bad forensic science, and 16% of those exonerated had initially falsely confessed.


Killing The Innocent With Indifference


Carlos DeLuna was executed by the state of Texas in 1989. A new study by Columbia University could prove his innocence.

The USA has almost certainly executed innocent men in the so called “modern” era of capital punishment, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. One of them may have been Carlos DeLuna, who was put to death in Texas in 1989 for the killing of gas station attendant Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi.

Today, a comprehensive report and website by James Liebman and a team of students in the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review makes a compelling case for DeLuna’s innocence.

To explain how this wrongful conviction and execution could have happened Liebman et al. point to the

“failure of lawyers on the defense as well as the prosecution side to have the curiosity and gumption to look just an inch or two below the surface.”


Ohio's Death Penalty Needs A Time-Out

Tyrone Noling

Tyrone Noling

Following the news of the nation’s 140th death row exoneration, which was also Ohio’s 6th, comes a story in The Atlantic about another disturbing case in the Buckeye State.  Tyrone Noling remains sentenced to die despite:

  • No physical evidence against him
  • Recanting witnesses who may have been coerced
  • An alternative suspect who seems to never have been thoroughly investigated
  • The state refusing to support a DNA test that might shed light on the accuracy of the conviction.

You know, the usual stuff.

Ohio has 13 executions scheduled, but wrongful death sentences, botched executions like that of Romell Broom which have led the courts to harshly admonish Ohio officials, expressions of concern from a state Supreme Court judge and a former Attorney General (authors of Ohio’s death penalty law), and from a warden who oversaw 33 executions, all suggest that the state could use a time-out.


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.


Georgia Kills Troy Davis

After a tense delay of more than 4 hours, the state of Georgia has just killed Troy Anthony Davis.

My heart is heavy.  I am sad and angry.  Georgia’s criminal justice system behaved with the viciousness of a defective machine, relentlessly pursuing his death while ignoring the doubts about his guilt that were obvious to the rest of the world.

Tonight we witnessed an abuse of power that exposed a justice system devoid of humanity, a dysfunctional destructive force in denial about its own deeply embedded flaws.

We could not ultimately stop Georgia’s machinery of death in this case, but the groundswell of activism Troy Davis has generated proves that people are hungry for a better system of justice.  This will be his legacy.  We will fight for a system of justice with more humanity, that accepts the possibility of mistakes, errors, and doubts.  A system of justice that believes that innocence matters.  A system of justice with more justice.

Let’s take a moment to honor the life of Troy Davis and Mark MacPhail. Then, let’s take all of our difficult feelings and re-double our commitment to the abolition of the death penalty.

not in my namePlease take this Pledge, and commit to working for abolition in your community, in your state, in your country, and in the world.

Tonight we mourn … tomorrow we organize!

Rick Perry By The Numbers

Rick Perry

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Amnesty International does not comment or take sides on elections.  But everyone knows that Rick Perry, Texas Governor for over a decade, is now running for President.  And everyone knows that during his tenure as Texas Governor, he has presided over a lot of executions. The total now sits at 234 (40% of all US executions carried out since Perry became Governor in December 2000).

Many folks also know that at least one of those, Cameron Todd Willingham, was probably innocent, and that evidence of his innocence was ignored by Governor Perry in the days and hours before Willingham was put to death.  And that an investigation into the dubious forensics that led to Willingham’s conviction was sidetracked when Perry suddenly put Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley in charge (Bradley is now being accused of withholding evidence of innocence in a case in his home county).

But there have been other cases of possible innocence, and, as currently scheduled, Perry’s 240th execution would be of Henry Skinner, a man whose innocence claim the Lone Star State is refusing to examine.



Experts Exclude Man As Killer, Execution Set Anyway

UPDATE: Larry Swearingen has been given a stay of execution! His case has been sent back to the trial court “to review and resolve the claims made” in a couple of habeas corpus applications.  In this case, the main claim raised is one of “actual innocence”.  Four of the court’s judges would have voted to dismiss Swearingen’s applications and allow the August 18 execution to proceed.

I have written a few times about the weird relationship between Texas and Science.  As those of you who watch any of the 10,000 CSI programs know, science is playing an increasingly central role in our criminal justice system.  But from proposing scent lineups, to carrying out executions based on discredited fire forensics, to refusing to test available DNA evidence, to acting on tips from psychics, Texas seems routinely to be behind the curve.

Now, Texas has set August 18 as the execution date for Larry Swearingen.  Swearingen was sentenced to death for the murder of Melissa Trotter, but he had been in jail for 23 days when the body of the victim was found.  Five separate forensic experts, including four current or former Chief Medical Examiners from Texas, have determined that Melissa Trotter died very close to the date her body was found.  That is, the crime occurred when Larry Swearingen was in jail.  This contradicts the trial testimony of Dr. Joye Carter who had said the death occurred 25 days prior to the body’s discovery.  But she herself has recanted that testimony and now agrees with the other forensic experts.


35 Years Of Death Penalty Regrets

Thirty-five years ago, on July 2, 1976, on the eve of massive bicentennial celebrations, the U.S. Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia voted 7-2 to re-instate capital punishment.  There had been no executions in the U.S. since 1967.

The U.S. could have been a leader in the subsequent worldwide trend toward death penalty abolition; instead the U.S. has become an outlier along with a minority of other countries (like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) that still kill prisoners.

What might have been?

Three of those 7 justices (Stevens, Blackmun and Powell) have since regretted their vote in Gregg, meaning that if there could be some sort of time-travel Stevens, Blackmun and Powell’s Excellent Adventure do-over, the death penalty might have never come back.

But, as with executing likely innocent people, you can’t go back in time to undo your mistakes. The death penalty did come back.


Ohio: Angry Lawyering And Doubts About Guilt

Ohio’s Parole Board has voted 7-0 to recommend clemency for Shawn Hawkins due to doubts about his guilt and an angry lawyer that berated his jury.  Ohio Governor John Kasich does not have to follow this recommendation, but he should.  (And you can urge him to do so.)

Hawkins’ conviction rests mainly on the testimony of an eyewitness who has changed his story several times (and was initially a suspect before being granted full immunity).  There was no murder weapon found and Hawkins had several alibi witnesses.

Upset that his client was convicted despite such a weak case, Hawkins’ lawyer lashed out at (and vaguely threatened) the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial.  He warned them (according to the Parole Board’s report) that, if they issued a sentence of death, “what comes around goes around”.  No mitigating evidence was presented, and, not surprisingly, the jury came back quickly with a sentence of death.


Anthony Graves, Troy Davis and Innocence

Anthony Graves spent 12 years on death row in Texas for a crime he didn't commit.

The story of Anthony Graves illustrates how a particularly heinous crime can lead to an emotional response and a tunnel-visioned investigation, and how the result can be that someone ends up on death row based on nothing more than flimsy physical evidence (later discredited) and dubious witness testimony (later recanted).

Anthony Graves, it turns out, was innocent, and was set free from Texas death row late last year.  CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery did a good job of telling the story this weekend, and you can watch it below.

Troy Davis, who was also sentenced to death despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, and who remains on death row in Georgia despite recantations from most of the witnesses who testified against him, has so far been unable to exonerate himself.