Argument: Risk of executing innocent people undermines death penalty

Issue Report: Death penalty


J. Joseph Curran, Attorney General of Maryland, in an official statement. 30 Jan. 2003 – I am here to talk today about what I believe is the most compelling issue: the inevitability of mistake. We are blessed in Maryland with dedicated police officers, prosecutors, judges, and lawyers, all who labor every day to make our criminal justice system work. But despite our best efforts, this system makes mistakes. It is a human institution, and humans are not infallible. Any trial judge and any trial lawyer will tell you – mistakes happen. People are imperfect, the system is imperfect. Mistakes are inevitable. With appeals and reviews, we catch many of them. We hope to catch most of them. But we do not catch all of them. Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, 821 people have been executed. During the same time period, 103 people have been exonerated, the most recent just this week in Florida. Those 103 were lucky. The mistake that led to their wrongful death sentence was found and corrected. Others are not so lucky. We will never know how many mistakes were not caught in time.[1]

P. N. Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of India. – It is impossible to eliminate the chance of judicial error. One innocent man being hanged should be enough to wipe out the value of capital punishment for ever.[2]

Jay Burnett, former Harris County criminal court judge. – There’s no question, in my mind, that someone has slipped through the cracks and that an innocent person has been executed.[3]

C. C. Cooke, Senior Texas State District Judge. – I think the mood is changing in this country and people are realizing there are deficiencies in the system. We always think we got the right person, but the system is not infallible.[4]

Harry Fogle, former Chief Judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Florida. – In my own experience, I know of four persons convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, who were later found to be innocent … long after the appellate process had been exhausted.[5]

Moses W. Harrison, former Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, rule in People v. Bull (1998) – Despite the courts’ efforts to fashion a death penalty scheme that is just, fair, and reliable, the system is not working. Innocent people are being sentenced to death … The prognosis for wrongly accused defendants facing capital charges is not improving. To the contrary, legislatures and the courts appear to have abandoned any genuine concern with insuring the fairness and reliability of the system. Achieving ‘finality’ in death cases, and doing so as expeditiously as posssible, have become the dominant goals in death penalty jurisprudence … It is no answer to say that we are doing the best we can. If this is the best our state can do, we have no business sending people to their deaths.[6]

Lord Parker (1958-1971), Lord Chief Justice of England, 1966. – If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.[7]

Michael Ponsor, U.S. District Judge. – The experience left me with one unavoidable conclusion: that a legal regime relying on the death penalty will inevitably execute innocent people – not too often, one hopes, but undoubtedly sometimes.[8]

Jed Rakoff, U.S. District Judge. – In brief, the court found that the best available evidence indicates that, on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions.[9]

John Sheehy, former Montana Supreme Court Judge. – The risk of the wrong person being executed is intolerable in a civilized society.[10]

Mark L. Wolf, federal judge. – In the past decade, substantial evidence has emerged to demonstrate that innocent individuals are sentenced to death, and undoubtedly executed, much more often that previously understood.[11]

Supreme Court of Canada, United States v. Burns, February 15th, 2001. – Legal systems have to live with the possibility of error. The unique feature of capital punishment is that it puts beyond recall the possibility of correction. In recent years, aided by the advances in the forensic sciences, including DNA testing, the courts and governments in this country and elsewhere have come to acknowledge a number of instances of wrongful convictions for murder despite all of the careful safeguards put in place for the protection of the innocent.[12]

Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General; (3) from his book “Crime in America”. New York Times, 7/3/1968. – Our history shows that the death penalty has been unjustly imposed, innocents have been killed by the state, effective rehabilitation has been impaired, judicial administration has suffered. It is the poor, the sick, the ignorant, the powerless, and the hated who are executed.[13]

Death Penalty Information Center: – “Since 1973, 123 in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.” This indicates a substantial degree of fallibility in the system, although it can also be used as evidence that the system is self-correcting, and that the innocent are ultimately found innocent before their execution.

According to the Innocence Project, More than 150 innocent people have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.

Michael Donovan, prosecuting attorney, after reviewing evaluations and evidence concerning the defendant’s mental health and childhood brain injuries, The Arizona Republic, February 2001. (Mata was executed by the State of Arizona in August 1996). – None of this critical information was presented at Luis Mata’s sentencing hearing. Quite frankly, after reviewing these materials, I am shocked and upset that this information had not been presented. … Had I known this information, I would not have requested or pursued a death sentence.[14]

Sam D. Milsap Jr., former District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas. – I am no longer convinced our legal system guarantees the protection of the innocent in capital murder cases … I support the call for a moratorium on executions in Texas.»«Our system in Texas is broken. Until it is fixed and we can be satisfied that only the guilty can be put to death, there should be no more executions in Texas.[15]

Jacques Chirac, President of France. – Those in favour of the death penalty use considerations of equity and effectiveness in their attempt to legitimize it. There’s no equity or effectiveness when it comes to the death penalty. There is no such thing as infallible justice and every execution could kill an innocent. Capital punishment does not remedy the harm done to victims any more than it makes society safer.[16]

Hansen Clarke, Michigan State Senator (D), in a press release 2/19/2004. – As we saw recently in Illinois, our criminal justice system is not infallible and to hand out life and death based on an imperfect system is immoral. The death penalty has never been proven to be an effective deterrent. In fact, studies show that states that do not employ the death penalty have lower murder rates than states that do.[17]

Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, in a letter to the editor, New York Times, 7/16/2003 – In light of the ever-growing number of exonerations of the wrongfully convicted, New Yorkers should once again ask themselves if the death penalty is worth the enormous risk it poses of executing the innocent.[18]

John R. Dunne, former New York State Senator, New York Daily News, 4/10/2005. – As a member of the New York Senate from 1966 to 1989, I voted 12 times to establish the death penalty in New York. Each time I cast a vote for death, I believed I was doing the right thing. But the last decade taught me that you cannot tinker with the death penalty. I read the stories of one innocent person after another walking off Death Row after being sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. These experiences brought me into contact with some of the thorniest issues surrounding the death penalty. I regret my votes in favor of the death penalty.[19]