The Case Against the Death Penalty
by American Civil Liberties Union
The Case Against the Death Penalty was first published by the ACLU as a pamphlet in 1973. The original text was written by Hugo Adam Bedau, Ph.D., who also contributed to several subsequent editions of the pamphlet. This version was most recently revised by the ACLU in 2012.
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The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we believe that the state should not give itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.
Capital punishment is an intolerable denial of civil liberties and is inconsistent with the fundamental values of our democratic system. The death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice. Through litigation, legislation, and advocacy against this barbaric and brutal institution, we strive to prevent executions and seek the abolition of capital punishment.
The ACLU’s opposition to capital punishment incorporates the following fundamental concerns:
• The death penalty system in the US is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people,largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, race of the victim and where the crime took place. People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white
• The death penalty is a waste of taxpayer funds and has no public safety benefit. The vast majority of law enforcement professionals surveyed agree that capital punishment does not deter violent crime; a survey of police chiefs nationwide found they rank the death penalty lowest among ways to reduce violent crime. They ranked increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy with more jobs higher than the death penalty as the best ways to reduce violence. The FBI has found the states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates.
• Innocent people are too often sentenced to death. Since 1973, over 140 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence. Nationally, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.
INTRODUCTION TO THE “MODERN ERA” OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE UNITED STATES
In 1972, the Supreme Court declared that under then-existing laws "the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty… constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238). The Court, concentrating its objections on the manner in which death penalty laws had been applied, found the result so "harsh, freakish, and arbitrary" as to be constitutionally unacceptable. Making the nationwide impact of its decision unmistakable, the Court summarily reversed death sentences in the many cases then before it, which involved a wide range of state statutes, crimes and factual situations.
But within four years after the Furman decision, several hundred persons had been sentenced to death under new state capital punishment statutes written to provide guidance to juries in sentencing. These statutes require a two-stage trial procedure, in which the jury first determines guilt or innocence and then chooses imprisonment or death in the light of aggravating or mitigating circumstances.
In 1976, the Supreme Court moved away from abolition, holding that "the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution." The Court ruled that the new death penalty statutes contained "objective standards to guide, regularize, and make rationally reviewable the process for imposing the sentence of death." (Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153). Subsequently 38 state legislatures and the Federal government enacted death penalty statutes patterned after those the Court upheld in Gregg. Congress also enacted and expanded federal death penalty statutes for peacetime espionage by military personnel and for a vast range of categories of murder.
Executions resumed in 1977. In 2002, the Supreme Court held executions of mentally retarded criminals are “cruel and unusual punishments” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Since then, states have developed a range of processes to ensure that mentally retarded individuals are not executed. Many have elected to hold proceedings prior to the merits trial, many with juries, to determine whether an accused is mentally retarded. In 2005, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed, resulting in commutation of death sentences to life for dozens of individuals across the country. As of August 2012, over 3,200 men and women are under a death sentence and more than 1,300 men, women and children (at the time of the crime) have been executed since 1976.
ACLU OBJECTIONS TO THE DEATH PENALTY
Despite the Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Gregg v. Georgia, et al, the ACLU continues to oppose capital punishment on moral, practical, and constitutional grounds:
Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. It is cruel because it is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding, and other corporal punishments were commonplace. Like those barbaric practices, executions have no place in a civilized society. It is unusual because only the United States of all the western industrialized nations engages in this punishment. It is also unusual because only a random sampling of convicted murderers in the United States receive a sentence of death.
Capital punishment denies due process of law. Its imposition is often arbitrary, and always irrevocable – forever depriving an individual of the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction, or the setting aside of a death sentence.
The death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. It is applied randomly – and discriminatorily. It is imposed disproportionately upon those whose victims are white, offenders who are people of color, and on those who are poor and uneducated and concentrated in certain geographic regions of the country.
The death penalty is not a viable form of crime control. When police chiefs were asked to rank the factors that, in their judgment, reduce the rate of violent crime, they mentioned curbing drug use and putting more officers on the street, longer sentences and gun control. They ranked the death penalty as least effective. Politicians who preach the desirability of executions as a method of crime control deceive the public and mask their own failure to identify and confront the true causes of crime.
Capital punishment wastes limited resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and law enforcement personnel. It unduly burdens the criminal justice system, and it is thus counterproductive as an instrument for society's control of violent crime. Limited funds that could be used to prevent and solve crime (and provide education and jobs) are spent on capital punishment.
Opposing the death penalty does not indicate a lack of sympathy for murder victims. On the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. Because life is precious and death irrevocable, murder is abhorrent, and a policy of state-authorized killings is immoral. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and brutality of violence, rather than reason, as the solution to difficult social problems. Many murder victims do not support state-sponsored violence to avenge the death of their loved one. Sadly, these victims have often been marginalized by politicians and prosecutors, who would rather publicize the opinions of pro-death penalty family members.
Changes in death sentencing have proved to be largely cosmetic. The defects in death-penalty laws, conceded by the Supreme Court in the early 1970s, have not been appreciably altered by the shift from unrestrained discretion to "guided discretion." Such so-called “reforms” in death sentencing merely mask the impermissible randomness of a process that results in an execution.
A society that respects life does not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is a violent public spectacle of official homicide, and one that endorses killing to solve social problems – the worst possible example to set for the citizenry, and especially children. Governments worldwide have often attempted to justify their lethal fury by extolling the purported benefits that such killing would bring to the rest of society. The benefits of capital punishment are illusory, but the bloodshed and the resulting destruction of community decency are real.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IS NOT A DETERRENT TO CAPITAL CRIMES
Deterrence is a function not only of a punishment's severity, but also of its certainty and frequency. The argument most often cited in support of capital punishment is that the threat of execution influences criminal behavior more effectively than imprisonment does. As plausible as this claim may sound, in actuality the death penalty fails as a deterrent for several reasons.
A punishment can be an effective deterrent only if it is consistently and promptly employed. Capital punishment cannot be administered to meet these conditions.
The proportion of first-degree murderers who are sentenced to death is small, and of this group, an even smaller proportion of people are executed. Although death sentences in the mid-1990s increased to about 300 per year, this is still only about one percent of all homicides known to the police. Of all those convicted on a charge of criminal homicide, only 3 percent – about 1 in 33 – are eventually sentenced to death. Between 2001-2009, the average number of death sentences per year dropped to 137, reducing the percentage even more. This tiny fraction of convicted murderers do not represent the “worst of the worst”.
Mandatory death sentencing is unconstitutional. The possibility of increasing the number of convicted murderers sentenced to death and executed by enacting mandatory death penalty laws was ruled unconstitutional in 1976 (Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280).
A considerable time between the imposition of the death sentence and the actual execution is unavoidable, given the procedural safeguards required by the courts in capital cases. Starting with selecting the trial jury, murder trials take far longer when the ultimate penalty is involved. Furthermore, post-conviction appeals in death-penalty cases are far more frequent than in other cases. These factors increase the time and cost of administering criminal justice.
We can reduce delay and costs only by abandoning the procedural safeguards and constitutional rights of suspects, defendants, and convicts – with the attendant high risk of convicting the wrong person and executing the innocent. This is not a realistic prospect: our legal system will never reverse itself to deny defendants the right to counsel, or the right to an appeal.
Persons who commit murder and other crimes of personal violence often do not premeditate their crimes.
Most capital crimes are committed in the heat of the moment. Most capital crimes are committed during moments of great emotional stress or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, when logical thinking has been suspended. Many capital crimes are committed by the badly emotionally-damaged or mentally ill. In such cases, violence is inflicted by persons unable to appreciate the consequences to themselves as well as to others.
Even when crime is planned, the criminal ordinarily concentrates on escaping detection, arrest, and conviction. The threat of even the severest punishment will not discourage those who expect to escape detection and arrest. It is impossible to imagine how the threat of any punishment could prevent a crime that is not premeditated. Furthermore, the death penalty is a futile threat for political terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh, because they usually act in the name of an ideology that honors its martyrs.
Capital punishment doesn't solve our society's crime problem. Threatening capital punishment leaves the underlying causes of crime unaddressed, and ignores the many political and diplomatic sanctions (such as treaties against asylum for international terrorists) that could appreciably lower the incidence of terrorism.
Capital punishment has been a useless weapon in the so-called "war on drugs." The attempt to reduce murders in the drug trade by threat of severe punishment ignores the fact that anyone trafficking in illegal drugs is already risking his life in violent competition with other dealers. It is irrational to think that the death penalty – a remote threat at best – will avert murders committed in drug turf wars or by street-level dealers.
If, however, severe punishment can deter crime, then permanent imprisonment is severe enough to deter any rational person from committing a violent crime.
The vast preponderance of the evidence shows that the death penalty is no more effective than imprisonment in deterring murder and that it may even be an incitement to criminal violence. Death-penalty states as a group do not have lower rates of criminal homicide than non-death-penalty states. Use of the death penalty in a given state may actually increase the subsequent rate of criminal homicide. Why? Perhaps because "a return to the exercise of the death penalty weakens socially based inhibitions against the use of lethal force to settle disputes…. "
In adjacent states – one with the death penalty and the other without it – the state that practices the death penalty does not always show a consistently lower rate of criminal homicide. For example, between l990 and l994, the homicide rates in Wisconsin and Iowa (non-death-penalty states) were half the rates of their neighbor, Illinois – which restored the death penalty in l973, and by 1994 had sentenced 223 persons to death and carried out two executions. Between 2000-2010, the murder rate in states with capital punishment was 25-46% higher than states without the death penalty.
On-duty police officers do not suffer a higher rate of criminal assault and homicide in abolitionist states than they do in death-penalty states. Between 1976 and 1989, for example, lethal assaults against police were not significantly more or less frequent in abolitionist states than in death-penalty states. Capital punishment did not appear to provide officers added protection during that time frame. In fact, the three leading states in law enforcement homicide in 1996 were also very active death penalty states: California (highest death row population), Texas (most executions since 1976), and Florida (third highest in executions and death row population). The South, which accounts for more than 80% of the country’s executions, also has the highest murder rate of any region in the country. If anything, the death penalty incited violence rather than curbed it.
Prisoners and prison personnel do not suffer a higher rate of criminal assault and homicide from life-term prisoners in abolition states than they do in death-penalty states. Between 1992 and 1995, 176 inmates were murdered by other prisoners. The vast majority of those inmates (84%) were killed in death penalty jurisdictions. During the same period, about 2% of all inmate assaults on prison staff were committed in abolition jurisdictions. Evidently, the threat of the death penalty "does not even exert an incremental deterrent effect over the threat of a lesser punishment in the abolitionist states." Furthermore, multiple studies have shown that prisoners sentenced to life without parole have equivalent rates of prison violence as compared to other inmates.
Actual experience thus establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the death penalty does not deter murder. No comparable body of evidence contradicts that conclusion.
Furthermore, there are documented cases in which the death penalty actually incited the capital crimes it was supposed to deter. These include instances of the so-called suicide-by-execution syndrome – persons who wanted to die but feared taking their own lives, and committed murder so that the state would kill them. For example, in 1996, Daniel Colwell, who suffered from mental illness, claimed that he killed a randomly-selected couple in a Georgia parking lot so that the state would kill him – he was sentenced to death and ultimately took his own life while on death row.
Although inflicting the death penalty guarantees that the condemned person will commit no further crimes, it does not have a demonstrable deterrent effect on other individuals. Further, it is a high price to pay when studies show that few convicted murderers commit further crimes of violence. Researchers examined the prison and post-release records of 533 prisoners on death row in 1972 whose sentences were reduced to incarceration for life by the Supreme Court's ruling in Furman. This research showed that seven had committed another murder. But the same study showed that in four other cases, an innocent man had been sentenced to death. (Marquart and Sorensen, in Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 1989)
Recidivism among murderers does occasionally happen, but it occurs less frequently than most people believe; the media rarely distinguish between a convicted offender who murders while on parole, and a paroled murderer who murders again. Government data show that about one in 12 death row prisoners had a prior homicide conviction. But as there is no way to predict reliably which convicted murderers will try to kill again, the only way to prevent all such recidivism is to execute every convicted murderer – a policy no one seriously advocates. Equally effective but far less inhumane is a policy of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IS UNFAIR
Constitutional due process and elementary justice both require that the judicial functions of trial and sentencing be conducted with fundamental fairness, especially where the irreversible sanction of the death penalty is involved. In murder cases (since 1930, 88 percent of all executions have been for this crime), there has been substantial evidence to show that courts have sentenced some persons to prison while putting others to death in a manner that has been arbitrary, racially biased, and unfair.
Racial Bias in Death Sentencing
Racial discrimination was one of the grounds on which the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in Furman. Half a century ago, in his classic American Dilemma (1944), Gunnar Myrdal reported that "the South makes the widest application of the death penalty, and Negro criminals come in for much more than their share of the executions." A study of the death penalty in Texas shows that the current capital punishment system is an outgrowth of the racist "legacy of slavery." Between 1930 and the end of 1996, 4,220 prisoners were executed in the United States; more than half (53%) were black.
Our nation's death rows have always held a disproportionately large population of African Americans, relative to their percentage of the total population. Comparing black and white offenders over the past century, the former were often executed for what were considered less-than-capital offenses for whites, such as rape and burglary. (Between 1930 and 1976, 455 men were executed for rape, of whom 405 – 90 percent – were black.) A higher percentage of the blacks who were executed were juveniles; and the rate of execution without having one's conviction reviewed by any higher court was higher for blacks. (Bowers, Legal Homicide 1984; Streib, Death Penalty for Juveniles 1987)
In recent years, it has been argued that such flagrant racial discrimination is a thing of the past. However, since the revival of the death penalty in the mid-1970s, about half of those on death row at any given time have been black. More striking is the racial comparison of victims. Although approximately 49% of all homicide victims are white, 77% of capital homicide cases since 1976 have involved a white victim.
Between 1976 and 2005, 86% of white victims were killed by whites (14% by other races) while 94% of black victims were killed by blacks (6% by other races). Blacks and whites are murder victims in almost equal numbers of crimes – which is a very high percentage given that the general US population is 13% black. African-Americans are six times as likely as white Americans to die at the hands of a murderer, and roughly seven times as likely to murder someone. Young black men are fifteen times as likely to be murdered as young white men.
So given this information, when those under death sentence are examined more closely, it turns out that race is a decisive factor after all.
Further, studies like that commissioned by the Governor of Maryland found that “black offenders who kill white victims are at greater risk of a death sentence than others, primarily because they are substantially more likely to be charged by the state’s attorney with a capital offense.”
The classic statistical study of racial discrimination in capital cases in Georgia presented in the McCleskey case showed that "the average odds of receiving a death sentence among all indicted cases were 4.3 times higher in cases with white victims." (David C. Baldus et al., Equal Justice and the Death Penalty 1990) In 1987 these data were placed before the Supreme Court in McCleskey v. Kemp and while the Court did not dispute the statistical evidence, it held that evidence of an overall pattern of racial bias was not sufficient. Mr. McCleskey would have to prove racial bias in his own case – a virtually impossible task. The Court also held that the evidence failed to show that there was "a constitutionally significant risk of racial bias...." (481 U.S. 279) Although the Supreme Court declared that the remedy sought by the plaintiff was "best presented to the legislative bodies," subsequent efforts to persuade Congress to remedy the problem by enacting the Racial Justice Act were not successful. (Don Edwards & John Conyers, Jr., The Racial Justice Act – A Simple Matter of Justice, in University of Dayton Law Review 1995)
In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported to the Congress the results of its review of empirical studies on racism and the death penalty. The GAO concluded: "Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty after the Furman decision" and that "race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process..."
Texas was prepared to execute Duane Buck on September 15, 2011. Mr. Buck was condemned to death by a jury that had been told by an expert psychologist that he was more likely to be dangerous because he was African American. The Supreme Court stayed the case, but Mr. Buck has not yet received the new sentencing hearing justice requires.
These results cannot be explained away by relevant non-racial factors, such as prior criminal record or type of crime, as these were factored for in the Baldus and GAO studies referred to above. They lead to a very unsavory conclusion: In the trial courts of this nation, even at the present time, the killing of a white person is treated much more severely than the killing of a black person. Of the 313 persons executed between January 1977 and the end of 1995, 36 had been convicted of killing a black person while 249 (80%) had killed a white person. Of the 178 white defendants executed, only three had been convicted of murdering people of color. Our criminal justice system essentially reserves the death penalty for murderers (regardless of their race) who kill white victims.
Another recent Louisiana study found that defendants with white victims were 97% more likely to receive death sentences than defendants with black victims.
Both gender and socio-economic class also determine who receives a death sentence and who is executed. Women account for only two percent of all people sentenced to death, even though females commit about 11 percent of all criminal homicides. Many of the women under death sentence were guilty of killing men who had victimized them with years of violent abuse. Since 1900, only 51 women have been executed in the United States (15 of them black).
Discrimination against the poor (and in our society, racial minorities are disproportionately poor) is also well established. It is a prominent factor in the availability of counsel.
Fairness in capital cases requires, above all, competent counsel for the defendant. Yet "approximately 90 percent of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried.") Common characteristics of death-row defendants are poverty, the lack of firm social roots in the community, and inadequate legal representation at trial or on appeal. As Justice William O. Douglas noted in Furman, "One searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata in this society"(408 US 238).
Failure of Safeguards
The demonstrated inequities in the actual administration of capital punishment should tip the balance against it in the judgment of fair-minded and impartial observers. "Whatever else might be said for the use of death as a punishment, one lesson is clear from experience: this is a power that we cannot exercise fairly and without discrimination."(Gross and Mauro, Death and Discrimination 1989)
Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing for the Court in Furman, noted "… the history of capital punishment for homicides … reveals continual efforts, uniformly unsuccessful, to identify before the fact those homicides for which the slayer should die…. Those who have come to grips with the hard task of actually attempting to draft means of channeling capital sentencing discretion have confirmed the lesson taught by history…. To identify before the fact those characteristics of criminal homicides and their perpetrators which call for the death penalty, and to express these characteristics in language which can be fairly understood and applied by the sentencing authority, appear to be tasks which are beyond present human ability." (402 U.S. 183 (1971))
Yet in the Gregg decision, the majority of the Supreme Court abandoned the wisdom of Justice Harlan and ruled as though the new guided-discretion statutes could accomplish the impossible. The truth is that death statutes approved by the Court "do not effectively restrict the discretion of juries by any real standards, and they never will. No society is going to kill everybody who meets certain preset verbal requirements, put on the statute books without awareness of coverage of the infinity of special factors the real world can produce."
Evidence obtained by the Capital Jury Project has shown that jurors in capital trials generally do not understand the judge's instructions about the laws that govern the choice between imposing the death penalty and a life sentence. Even when they do comprehend, jurors often refuse to be guided by the law. "Juror comprehension of the law… is mediocre. The effect [of this relative lack of comprehension of the law]… is to reduce the likelihood that capital defendants will benefit from the safeguards against arbitrariness built into the… law."
Even if the jury's sentencing decision were strictly governed by the relevant legal criteria, there remains a vast reservoir of unfettered discretion: the prosecutor's decision to prosecute for a capital or lesser crime, the court's willingness to accept or reject a guilty plea, the jury's decision to convict for second-degree murder or manslaughter rather than capital murder, the determination of the defendant's sanity, and the governor's final clemency decision, among others.
Discretion in the criminal justice system is unavoidable. The history of capital punishment in America clearly demonstrates the social desire to mitigate the harshness of the death penalty by narrowing the scope of its application. Whether or not explicitly authorized by statutes, sentencing discretion has been the main vehicle to this end. But when sentencing discretion is used – as it too often has been – to doom the poor, the friendless, the uneducated, racial minorities, and the despised, it becomes injustice.
Mindful of such facts, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association (including 20 out of 24 former presidents of the ABA) called for a moratorium on all executions by a vote of 280 to 119 in February 1997. The House judged the current system to be "a haphazard maze of unfair practices."
In its 1996 survey of the death penalty in the United States, the International Commission of Jurists reinforced this point. Despite the efforts made over the past two decades since Gregg to protect the administration of the death penalty from abuses, the actual "constitutional errors committed in state courts have gravely undermined the legitimacy of the death penalty as a punishment for crime." (International Commission of Jurists, Administration of the Death Penalty in the United States 1996)
In 2009, the American Law Institute (ALI), the leading independent organization in the U.S. producing scholarly work to clarify, modernize and improve the law, removed capital punishment from its Model Penal Code. The ALI, which created the modern legal framework for the death penalty in 1962, indicated that the punishment is so arbitrary, fraught with racial and economic disparities, and unable to assure quality legal representation for indigent capital defendants, that it can never be administered fairly.
Thoughtful citizens, who might possibly support the abstract notion of capital punishment, are obliged to condemn it in actual practice.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IS IRREVERSIBLE
Unlike any other criminal punishments, the death penalty is irrevocable. Speaking to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1830, years after having witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette said, "I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me." Although some proponents of capital punishment would argue that its merits are worth the occasional execution of innocent people, most would hasten to insist that there is little likelihood of the innocent being executed.
Since 1900, in this country, there have been on the average more than four cases each year in which an entirely innocent person was convicted of murder. Scores of these individuals were sentenced to death. In many cases, a reprieve or commutation arrived just hours, or even minutes, before the scheduled execution. These erroneous convictions have occurred in virtually every jurisdiction from one end of the nation to the other. Nor have they declined in recent years, despite the new death penalty statutes approved by the Supreme Court.
Disturbingly, and increasingly, a large body of evidence from the modern era shows that innocent people are often convicted of crimes – including capital crimes – and that some have been executed.
In 2012, a new report in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review chronicled the horrifying case of Carlos DeLuna, a man executed in Texas in 1989 for a murder that it was “common knowledge” had been committed by another man. DeLuna’s story demonstrates so many of the factors that can go wrong in a capital case: faulty eyewitness identification, prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct, a botched crime scene, destroyed DNA evidence, a poor person represented by ineffective by an ineffective inexperienced defense attorney overmatched by a professional prosecutor, and insufficient oversight from the bench. In its case against DeLuna, the State presented no blood or DNA evidence, no crime scene fingerprints, and no proof of hair or fibers from the victim having been found on the defendant. He was convicted largely based on eyewitness testimony made from the back of a police car in a dimly lit lot near the crime scene. Meanwhile, a violent criminal named Carlos Hernandez—a man who not only shared DeLuna’s name, but also looked like him—repeatedly boasted about how he had committed the murder and gotten away with it. These disturbing facts about DeLuna’s case, brought to light more than two decades after his execution, refute the claim, made by some proponents of capital punishment, that the United States has never executed an innocent person.
Consider this additional handful of cases of innocent people sentenced to die – some executed and some spared:
• In 2011, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a Black man who was almost certainly innocent of the murder of a white off-duty police officer. The circumstances of his execution raised an international outcry, for good reason. Davis was convicted based on eyewitness testimony, since there was no murder weapon or physical evidence presented by the prosecution. Seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanted or contradicted their trial testimony, many of them saying they were pressured or threatened by police at the time. Troy Davis came close to execution three previous times, because of the difficulty of getting any court to listen to new evidence casting doubt on his conviction. After passage of a federal law in 1996, petitioners are very limited in their ability to appeal death sentences, and courts routinely refuse to hear new testimony, even evidence of innocence. When Troy Davis finally did get a hearing on his evidence, the judge required “proof of innocence” – an impossibly high standard which he ruled that Mr. Davis did not meet. Despite the overwhelming call for clemency, supposed to be the “fail-safe” of the death penalty system, the Georgia Board of Pardons refused to commute the sentence to life and Mr. Davis was executed. Only one day after Troy Davis was executed, two men were freed by the special Innocence Commission of North Carolina after a decade apiece in prison. The two men had actually pled guilty to a crime they did not commit, because they were threatened with the death penalty.
• In Texas in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the arson-murder of his three children. Independent investigations by a newspaper, a nonprofit organization using top experts in the field of fire science, and an independent expert hired by the State of Texas all found that accident, not arson was the cause of the fire. There simply was no reliable evidence that the children were murdered. Yet even with these reports in hand, the state of Texas executed Mr. Willingham. Earlier this year, the Texas Forensic Science Commission was poised to issue a report officially confirming these conclusions until Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the Commission’s chair and some of its members. Cameron Todd Willingham, who claimed innocence all along, was executed for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. As an example of the arbitrariness of the death penalty, another man, Ernest Willis, also convicted of arson-murder on the same sort of flimsy and unscientific testimony, was freed from Texas death row six months after Willingham was executed.
• In 1985, in Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death for rape and murder, despite the testimony of alibi witnesses. In 1986 his conviction was reversed on grounds of withheld evidence pointing to another suspect; he was retried, re-convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1993, newly available DNA evidence proved he was not the rapist-killer, and he was released after the prosecution dismissed the case. A year later he was awarded $300,000 for wrongful punishment. Years later the DNA was matched to the real killer.
• In Mississippi, in 1990, Sabrina Butler was sentenced to death for killing her baby boy. She claimed the child died after attempts at resuscitation failed. On technical grounds her conviction was reversed in 1992. At retrial, she was acquitted when a neighbor corroborated Butler's explanation of the child's cause of death and the physician who performed the autopsy admitted his work had not been thorough.
• In 1990, Jesse Tafero was executed in Florida. He had been convicted in 1976 along with his wife, Sonia Jacobs, for murdering a state trooper. In 1981 Jacobs' death sentence was reduced on appeal to life imprisonment, and 11 years later her conviction was vacated by a federal court. The evidence on which Tafero and Jacobs had been convicted and sentenced was identical; it consisted mainly of the perjured testimony of an ex-convict who turned state's witness in order to avoid a death sentence. Had Tafero been alive in 1992, he no doubt would have been released along with Jacobs. Tafero’s execution went horribly wrong, and his head caught on fire during the electrocution.
• In Alabama, Walter McMillian was convicted of murdering a white woman in 1988. Despite the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, the judge sentenced him to death. The sole evidence leading the police to arrest McMillian was testimony of an ex-convict seeking favor with the prosecution. A dozen alibi witnesses (all African Americans, like McMillian) testified on McMillian's behalf that they were together at a neighborhood gathering, to no avail. On appeal, after tireless efforts by his attorney Bryan Stevenson, McMillian's conviction was reversed by the Alabama Court of Appeals. Stevenson uncovered prosecutorial suppression of exculpatory evidence and perjury by prosecution witnesses, and the new district attorney joined the defense in seeking dismissal of the charges.
• In 1985, in Illinois, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were convicted of abduction, rape, and murder of a young girl and were sentenced to death. Shortly after, another man serving a life term in prison for similar crimes confessed that he alone was guilty; but his confession was inadmissible because he refused to repeat it in court unless the state waived the death penalty against him. Awarded a new trial in 1988, Cruz was again convicted and sentenced to death; Hernandez was also re-convicted, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. In 1992 the assistant attorney general assigned to prosecute the case on appeal resigned after becoming convinced of the defendants' innocence. The convictions were again overturned on appeal after DNA tests exonerated Cruz and implicated the prisoner who had earlier confessed. In 1995 the court ordered a directed verdict of acquittal, and sharply criticized the police for their unprofessional handling of the case. Hernandez was released on bail and the prosecution dropped all charges.
• In 1980 in Texas a black high school janitor, Clarence Brandley, and his white co-worker found the body of a missing 16-year-old white schoolgirl. Interrogated by the police, they were told, "One of you two is going to hang for this." Looking at Brandley, the officer said, "Since you're the nigger, you're elected." In a classic case of rush to judgment, Brandley was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The circumstantial evidence against him was thin, other leads were ignored by the police, and the courtroom atmosphere reeked of racism. In 1986, Centurion Ministries – a volunteer group devoted to freeing wrongly convicted prisoners – came to Brandley's aid. Evidence had meanwhile emerged that another man had committed the murder for which Brandley was awaiting execution. Brandley was not released until 1990.(Davies, White Lies 1991)
This sample of freakish and arbitrary innocence determinations also speaks directly to the unceasing concern that there are many more innocent people on death rows across the country – as well as who have been executed. Several factors seen in the above sample of cases help explain why the judicial system cannot guarantee that justice will never miscarry: overzealous prosecution, mistaken or perjured testimony, race, faulty police work, coerced confessions, the defendant's previous criminal record, inept and under-resourced defense counsel, seemingly conclusive circumstantial evidence, and community pressure for a conviction, among others. And when the system does go wrong, it is often volunteers from outside the criminal justice system – journalists, for example – who rectify the errors, not the police or prosecutors. To retain the death penalty in the face of the demonstrable failures of the system is unacceptable, especially since there are no strong overriding reasons to favor the death penalty.