Why Innocent People are on Death Row
Why are innocent people on death row?
There are many cases of innocent people being executed in the U.S. There are many reasons why innocent people are on death row. One reason underlies all the others: Humans are imperfect.
Some people say we need the death penalty for reasons of justice and fairness. But, is the death penalty just and fair?
There are two broad issues that must be considered to determine the justness and fairness of the death penalty. They are (1) the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty and (2) the conviction of the innocent.
Why is the death penalty arbitrary?
There is a serious lack of fairness about who faces the death penalty and who does not.
Often the decision is arbitrary. There are no well-defined standards about when to seek and when not to seek the death penalty and who should make the determination. Prosecutors, judges, and juries all have too much discretion in this life and death decision.
We like to think that the death penalty is based on the severity of the crime and that it is only applied when a murder is particularly heinous. You have only to read the newspaper to see that this is not the case.
In actuality there are a number of extraneous factors that actually determine whether or not the accused faces the death penalty.
The race of the accused and the race of the victim both matter and both play a role. Here are some statistics.
If the victim is white, the death penalty is between 4 to 11 times more likely than if the victim is black.
If the accused is black, there is a four times greater incidence of asking for the death penalty.
If the accused is white and the victim is black, there is almost never a death penalty.
Black people are often excluded from juries, especially when the accused is black.
People with high social status are much less likely to get a death penalty. Case in point: O.J. Simpson—he was a black man accused of viciously murdering two white people with premeditation--yet the prosecutor did not ask for the death penalty. There can be no other reason than the fact that O.J. was a popular sports star.
High status people seldom face the death penalty. It is the poor and unknown who will be condemned to death.
Luck of the draw
Since there are no well defined standards about what is and what is not a capital crime, the accused might just be unlucky. It’s like some sort of lethal lottery. Some jurisdictions are just more prone to seek the death penalty than are others.
You would be hard pressed to find someone to admit it, but cost can be a factor in the decision. If the jurisdiction feels that it can’t afford the extra costs associated with a death penalty trial, the prosecution may not ask for the death penalty.
Politics may be rampant. Does someone in the criminal justice system have a political agenda? Does he want to seem “tough on crime?” Well, too bad for the accused, because it is “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS.”
Why do innocent people get convicted?
If you oppose the death penalty, you can’t serve on a jury in a death penalty case. Consequently, the jury is biased. People who are in favor of the death penalty are more like to be the “law and order” types. They are more likely to believe authority figures. So the defendants who are facing the harshest penalty are the ones most likely to be convicted because of the inherent bias in the jury selection process.
We have to add racial prejudice to this. If a black person has an all white or predominantly white jury, he is more likely to be convicted. Even good people who want to be fair can’t help but be influenced by their prejudices, even if their prejudices are unconscious ones.
Whether or not someone gets convicted may be a matter of what kind of jury he gets. In the O.J Simpson trial, the trial was moved from the predominantly white area of Brentwood to a predominantly black area. The mostly black jury decided to “stick it to the man” or maybe they were just more likely to believe that the cops framed O.J. Either way, do you think O.J. would have been acquitted by a Brentwood jury? Whether he was innocent or guilty, he was lucky to get the jury he had. This jury was probably biased in is favor.
Incompetent defense lawyers
O.J. Simpson had the “dream team.” He could afford the best. But most defendants who face the death penalty are poor. They have to rely on a public defender. They can’t afford to hire expert witnesses.
The poor must rely on public defenders. There are many competent and selfless public defenders who work hard for their clients. But many are overworked, inexperienced, and or just don’t care.
Sometimes innocent people confess. The Innocence Project works to reverse the convictions of innocent people. They found false confessions in 23% of their cases.
Sometimes innocent people confess because they are intoxicated or mentally impaired in some way. They might also be in a state of shock and unable to think clearly.
Sometimes an innocent person confesses due to coercion, threats, and/or “harsh interrogation techniques.”
And the saddest cases are those who confess because of their ignorance of the law. They think if they just confess, they will be allowed to go home, and then they can prove their innocence later.
There are so many different types of faulty evidence, this category needs its own section.
What kinds of faulty evidence results in false convictions?
The amount of faulty evidence that results in convictions that put innocent people on death row is astounding.
The Innocence Project has found that the number one reason for wrongful conviction, proven by DNA, is an unreliable eyewitness report.
Eye witness testimony is often unreliable. There are hundreds of scientific studies, dating back to the 1800’s, that show that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, yet this type of testimony is often the main, and sometimes only factor, in convictions.
Of the over 300 exonerations achieved by the Innocence Project, 77% involved faulty eyewitness testimony.
Faulty forensic science
Faulty forensic science is the second greatest source of error, present in 50% of the Innocence Project exonerations. Just honest mistakes.
Innocent people get convicted because of the “jailhouse snitch. It strains credulity that this evidence is even allowed into a court room.
Promise a convict a reduced sentence or promise someone accused of another crime reduced charges, or get an accomplice to give “state’s evidence” and what do you think you are going to hear? Exactly what you want to hear.
It is amazing how many people want to confess to these “snitches,” but only after the “snitch” makes his deal with the authorities. The Innocence Project found false testimony by informants in 16% of the cases of wrongful convictions.
There is often prosecutorial misconduct. Sometimes the prosecutor wants a conviction so bad--or maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt--he really believes the defendant is guilty. So he will browbeat witnesses, produce evidence he knows to be unreliable, and withhold and/or destroy exculpatory evidence.
Learn more about the work of the Innocence Project
- The Innocence Project - Home
The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
What underlies all of the previously mentioned factors?
The underlying reason for innocent people on death row is that humans are imperfect. We make mistakes and sometimes we lie and cheat. But should we risk condemning an innocent person to death because of our human frailties? As long as there is a death penalty, innocent people will die.
The appeals process and groups like The Innocence Project help to overturn some wrongful convictions. This helps, but some wrongful convictions slip through the cracks. Usually once a person has been executed, the case is no longer investigated. The resources must go to try to save the ones who are still alive.
The case of George Stinney
I try to write with objectivity. I don’t want to do personal essays; I want to write as a researcher or reporter. The case of George Stinney forces me to get personal. I’m writing this as I try to fight back tears.
The case was on the TV news last night. I had been thinking about writing on this topic, but I kept putting it off because it is such a difficult subject. After seeing the news report about George Stinney, I knew I had to write about this today.
The case of George Stinney goes back to 1944. It is not a typical case, but it is one that highlights many of the problems with the death penalty. George Stinney was a 14 year-old black boy in South Carolina. He was five-feet tall and weighed 95 pounds. He was convicted of murdering two white girls. The trial lasted two hours, the all-white jury deliberated for 10 minutes, and Stinney was executed three months later. Thee was no appeal.
Yesterday, December 18, 2014, 70 years after the execution of this child, a judge vacated his conviction stating that there was absolutely no evidence in support of his conviction. Too bad the judge could not vacate his death. Death cannot be undone.
George Stinney was so small that he had to sit on books to get his head high enough to reach the helmet of the electric chair. As the current passed through his body, his body went into convulsions. The hood fell from his head. The witnesses saw the tears running down his face.
You may be thinking that it happened in a different time and a different place. It couldn’t happen now. You would be wrong. As long as there is a death penalty, no one can be sure this will not happen again.
Read the book written about the George Stinney case.
Why do they want to kill me for something I didn't do?— George Stinney, from his jail cell
Read the NBC News Report
- Exonerated After Execution: Judge Tosses Teen's Murder Conviction - NBC News
Seventy years after South Carolina executed a 14-year-old boy, a circuit court judge threw out his murder conviction
Child in the Chamber: Scenes from the movie, Carolina Skeletons
What are your beliefs about the execution of innocent people in the U.S.?
Which statement comes closest to your beliefs?
There are some good signs.
Footnote: There is progress on the death penalty.
The number of new death sentences has gone from 315 in 1996 to 72 in 2014.
The number of executions has gone down from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014.
In the 1990s, 20 states carried out at least one execution; in 2014 only 7 states did so. (The highest number of executions took place in Texas, Missouri, and Florida.)
Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty.
© 2014 Catherine Giordano