Wrongful Convictions Sharpen Focus on Death Penalty System

By: - November 12, 2013 12:00 am

For people wrongly convicted and sent to prison for crimes they did not commit, the opportunities for justice are few and far between.

“There have been no consequences for the prosecutor in my case,” said Anthony Graves, a Texas man who was exonerated three years ago after serving more than a decade on death row for a murder he did not commit.

“He’s never been in front of any board and is free to do whatever he wants, even though the court cited egregious misconduct in his handling of my case,” said Graves, who now advocates for criminal justice reform. Graves spoke Tuesday on a panel of experts at an American Bar Association conference in Atlanta. Earlier in the meeting, former President Jimmy Carter called on the lawyers’ association to campaign to end the death penalty.

Since 1989, 1,241 people have been wrongfully convicted and later cleared of all charges based on evidence that they were innocent, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University.

In another case of misconduct mentioned by the panel, the prosecutor was disciplined. Texas prosecutor Ken Anderson deliberately withheld evidence proving that a Texas man, Michael Morton, did not murder his wife. He will serve 10 days in jail for contempt of court for withholding evidence and serve 500 hours of community service. He will also give up his law license. Morton served almost 25 years for the murder he did not commit.

To ensure that more innocent people don’t end up on death row, the American Bar Association has conducted assessments of the death penalty system in 12 states and issued recommendations ranging from stronger rules on police interrogations to protections for the mentally ill facing execution. 

In its most recent report, researchers found that Virginia’s death penalty lacked adequate protections to prevent an innocent person from being executed. The report recommended allowing more evidence to be released to the defense team, which former Virginia Republican Attorney General Mark Earley said was the only way to make sure the process is fair.

“By the time a case gets to the appellate review, a lot of the decisions about a defendant’s guilt are already locked in. By that time, the deck is stacked against the defendant,” Earley said during the panel discussion.

Prosecutors are bringing fewer death penalty cases in Virginia and across the country, because of  the increased costs of capital cases and waning public support for the death penalty, Earley said.

While 60 percent of Americans still favor the death penalty, support is at its lowest since 1972, according to a recent Gallup poll.

“I think the days of the death penalty in Virginia are numbered,” Earley said, citing growing conservative discontent with the punishment. Earley supported the death penalty as a Republican state senator, but said he changed his mind after witnessing executions as the state attorney general.

In the last six years, six states have ended the death penalty bringing the total to 18. Earlier this year, North Carolina and Florida passed laws designed to shorten the length of time between conviction and execution.

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