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.


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.


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 texasobserver.org)

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.


With Death Sentences Down, Things Are Looking Up in Texas

Source: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Source: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

It’s always nice to hear good news about the decline of the death penalty, and even nicer when that news is coming out of Texas. According to a recent report, while Texas officials continue to carry out executions at a high rate, the number of Texas juries that opt for the death penalty has dropped remarkably in recent years. In 1999, Texas sentenced 48 prisoners to death, but over the last decade that number has plummeted; so far in 2009, only 9 death sentences have been meted out. The drop has come about partly because a life-without-parole option has reassured juries that convicts will never be released, partly because in a troubled economy the sky-high financial costs of the death penalty are particularly daunting, and mostly because of what Texas state Senator Eddie Lucio Jr.,  calls “a growing lack of belief that our system is fair.”

Well-publicized exonerations, some based on irrefutable DNA evidence, have woken many Texans up to the reality that the legal system is often quite flawed, and more and more jurors are unwilling to risk being complicit in the execution of an innocent person. Tarrant County’s lead criminal prosecutor, Alan Levy, has said that said groups like the Innocence Project have done an excellent job of raising the profile of innocent convicts, and have made sure that the topic of wrongful conviction (and potential wrongful execution) is not forgotten.


Texas' Reluctant Jurors

Today, Time wonders if Texas is “Changing its Mind About the Death Penalty.” There is ample evidence that something is happening.  According to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) year-end report, there were only 11 death sentences in the Lone Star state in 2008, and a grand total of Zero in Harris County (which by itself is responsible for over 100 executions in the last 26 years). 

To a certain extent, this apparent shift in attitude (at least in the jury room) mirrors broader national (and even international) trends, but the idea of Texans going along with national trends on the death penalty is itself noteworthy, if only because it conflicts with Texas’ relentlessly self-promoted stereotype that it is like “a whole ‘nother country”.

Texas, of course, is not a “‘nother country”, and Texans are quite reasonably experiencing the same misgivings about capital punishment as everyone else.   With 130 exonerations from death row nationally, the most recent one being Michael Blair in Texas, jurors are understandably reluctant to hand down such an irreversible punishment.  And with life without parole as an alternative, they don’t feel they have to.

Capital Punishment Slowing Down

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its Year End Report (pdf) for 2008.  It reveals clearly that the trend towards growing skepticism and diminishing (and more regional) use of capital punishment is continuing.  There were 37 executions in 2008, the lowest total since 1994, and there were only 111 death sentences passed.  For the second straight year, this was the lowest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated since 1976.  (In the peak year, 1999, there were 98 executions and 284 death sentences.)

Four men were exonerated for America’s death rows this year, increasing already substantial public doubts that an imperfect system can, or should, carry out such an irreversible punishment. 

Executions this year were also almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon.  Depending on your definition of The South – are Kentucky and/or Oklahoma “southern” states? – this region accounted for all but 2, or 4, or 5 executions in 2008.  But the dramatic decline in death sentences is taking place in the South just as it is everywhere else  in the U.S. (except at the Federal level, where death sentences have doubled since outgoing President Bush took office). 

As the report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (pdf) revealed last week, death sentences in that notoriously execution-friendly state also dropped to a post-reinstatement low, with only 9 sentences recorded in 2008.  Of course, Texas continues to execute at an alarming rate (accounting for almost half the executions this year), but to a certain extent execution numbers are a reflection of where the death penalty stood 10 or 12 years ago (the average length of time it takes for a death sentence to be carried out).  In another decade, we may see execution numbers in Texas and the rest of the South dropping to the levels they are currently at everywhere else, which is almost zero.