There was an excellent article in The Atlantic magazine on the likelihood of executing innocent people in the USA, and the terrible flaws in our justice system. It's full of outrage, and the author makes many chilling points:
Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, in 1976, more than eighty death-row inmates have been freed from prison, their convictions overturned by evidence of innocence. That may not sound like many, given the huge U.S. prison population, but it is more than one percent of the 6,000 men and women who were sentenced to death in that same period, and equal to almost 15 percent of those actually executed.
Probably many more of the death-row inmates are actually innocent, but don't have the strong evidence of innocence required to vacate their convictions.
A 1996 Justice Department report, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial, found that in 8,048 rape and rape-and-murder cases referred to the FBI crime lab from 1988 to mid-1995, a staggering 2,012 of the primary suspects were exonerated owing to DNA evidence alone.
There is no logical reason to think that police-error rates in criminal investigations lacking DNA evidence are any better than the 25 percent error rate in those where it is present.
And the public defenders do a shockingly cursory job of defending people in capital cases, where there a risk they might be sentenced to death. The money available for the public defenders is terribly inadequate.
So the death penalty specifically involves the victimization of people who have little money. It's also applied in a way that victimizes black people.
The article makes good suggestions for reforming the system.
I've watched a lot of Dateline crime shows on Youtube. Many of them are about people who were found guilty of murder with little evidence, and the show doesn't convince me the person is guilty, and they probably didn't leave out major evidence.
So I ask myself, how common is this? Dateline is looking for interesting shows, and it's interesting when someone who could well be innocent is convicted. So there's a bias.
But reading the Atlantic article makes me think wrongful convictions are much more common than we would like to believe. And also, executions of people who are innocent. Edward Earl Johnson was a young black man convicted of murder who was executed in 1987. Many legal observers believe he was innocent, and the prison warden who arranged for his execution, believed him to be innocent. There's a BBC documentary about the last 2 weeks of his life.
The process of law is quite rigid, authoritarian, arbitrary.
Perhaps if it worked more like science, where decisions and thoughts are changed on the basis of evidence and criticism from numerous groups, it would work better. It's interesting to ask how it might be designed differently, to work more like science.
I suffer no illusion that any system of jurisprudence can be perfect, but ours in the US today is so imperfect that I think that the death penalty is unjustifiable. It's a problem that many of the powerful actors are political figures with points to be made with voters and appointers who have no connection to or information about specific cases. And it's a problem that public defenders of the poor are so often inadequate -- this is a problem even greater in cases not involving capital offenses.
From "Best of all possible worlds" by Kris Kristofferson:
I said if that's against the law
Then tell me why I never saw
A man locked in that jail of yours
That wasn't just as low-down poor as me.
In a fair number of places in the US, that's the conclusion others have come to as well.
Currently in Tennessee, authorities are wanting to do s house cleaning of death row and execute an unprecedented # of convicts. It's strange to me that "justice" requires such a sudden housecleaning.
Apparently,some of our reduction in executions is due to a shortage of death drugs, caused by European countries' opposition to US death penalty. I don't know why the drugs can't be made in the USA. The linked article states "In April of this year, the number of people on death row declined to 3,108 inmates, compared to 3,170 at the same time last year." I had no idea there were over 3,000 on death row in the USA.
When I read that article in the Atlantic suggesting that the rate of wrongful convictions may be much higher than you might guess - even for people on death row - and watching that BBC documentary about the execution of Edward Earl Johnson, who seems to have been not only innocent but a nice person - the death penalty looks not just insupportable - but actually an atrocity: the state-sanctioned systematic murder of disadvantaged people, some of whom are innocent.
People who are condemned to death may be innocent of the crime for which they were sentenced to death, yet still vicious characters. For example there's Larry Swearingen, currently on death row for the murder of a young woman. He's a compulsive liar who came up with many different stories about what happened. He's been violent against women in the past. Any woman should stay away from this handsome but vicious dude.
Yet he seems likely innocent of the murder, because he was in jail when the young woman's body was discovered, and several experts say that for several different reasons, her body doesn't seem like she had been dead long enough for him to have done the crime. Swearingen has been within a day of execution several times, but the execution was put off because of evidence of innocence.
And the prosecutor is now arguing against doing some DNA testing that Swearingen asked for, to prove his innocence.
Edward Earl Johnson seems like he was innocent in general, that's why the documentary about his execution was so painful to watch. He signed a false confession to the crime because, he says, the police threatened him with death. The false confession was a big part of why he was convicted.
Dateline publicizes a lot of wrongful convictions. Hopefully by making wrongful convictions into entertainment, they are raising public awareness of how many innocent people are languishing in prison in the USA.
That's terrible. I hope that would be found unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment.
I hope so too.
"If we could do away with death, we wouldn’t object; to do away with capital punishment will be more difficult. Were that to happen, we would reinstate it from time to time."
A big part of the problem of wrongful convictions is prosecutorial misconduct and the immunity of prosecutors from liability or criminal prosecution for misconduct. From an article,
An Innocence Project study of 75 DNA exonerations -- that is, cases where the defendant was later found to be unquestionably innocent -- found that prosecutorial misconduct factored into just under half of those wrongful convictions. According to a spokesman for the organization, none of the prosecutors in those cases faced any serious professional sanction.
We can't have convicts suing prosecutors, at least not often. Even criminal defense lawyers are at risk of being attacked somehow - perhaps physically - by a disgruntled client. Even more true for prosecutors. So prosecutors and police have a lot of protection from bad consequences for their actions.
But it has gone to the opposite extreme, where prosecutors can even do criminal things to obtain a conviction, with no consequences.
I agree and those prosecutors should be held liable or lose a law license.
The 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line is about the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams.
Adams' car had broken down. So he got a ride from a criminal teenager David Harris who was driving a stolen car. He ended up spending the day with him. Then Harris dropped him off at a motel.
Later on that night, Harris was stopped by the police. Because he was driving a stolen car, he shot the cop as he approached the window, then floored it away. The cop's partner forgot the license plate.
Harris said that Adams was still with him, driving, and had shot the cop.
There was a witness who testified that Adams had been driving. She only saw him from a distance though.
The documentary uncovered evidence that this witness was willing to testify to anything. She had a daughter up on robbery charges and the charges were dropped after she testified she recognized Adams.
Also the murder was done with Harris's gun, and Harris had a criminal record already, even though he was just 16. Adams had no criminal record.
Harris couldn't be given the death penalty because he was underage, and the defense thought that was why Adams was charged instead - so he could be given the death penalty.
Adams says that during the interrogation, he was ordered to pick up a gun - presumably, the gun used in the murder. The police were trying to fabricate evidence that he had done it! He refused.
Adams went to buy some cigarettes in a store after Harris dropped him off. But the defense lawyer didn't go to the store to ask whether they could give Adams an alibi, until weeks later. By that time the store clerk had forgotten. That was a terrible missed opportunity.
Harris basically confesses that he did the murder, on tape in the documentary.
Adams came to within 3 days of execution, but he was ultimately released as innocent.
Watching Harris talk in the documentary, I thought - this guy is not worth the food being used to keep him alive. Even though I dislike the death penalty so much.
This case illustrates how an innocent person can be convicted of murder, a reasonable-sounding case cobbled up against them.
It illustrates why standards of evidence are so important. If any evidence can be used, you can put together lots of dubious evidence and some people will believe "where there's smoke there must be fire". You can argue that while each piece of evidence may be invalid, the totality of the evidence proves guilt.
The murder case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito has similar problems. Italy has much more lax standards of evidence than the USA. Character evidence against the defendant is allowed, and any DNA evidence can be brought up. The judge in the appeals trial dismissed the DNA evidence against them based on the opinion of independent experts that it was very low quality. But this evidence was resurrected for the second appeals trial, and not dismissed by that judge.
There are similarly witnesses against Amanda and Raffaele. There's a heroin addict who has repeatedly served as a prosecution witness in trials, and apparently is incredibly lucky about seeing relevant things. He probably gets something in return for his testimony. But he testified there were buses running on the night when he saw Amanda and Raffaele - and there were no buses on the night of the murder. Also there was a neighbor who said she heard a scream, although the scream seems to have happened at the wrong time, she has mental health problems and there was also a loud argument in the street that night, unrelated to the case. And a store owner who came forward a year after the murder, who said he saw Amanda go to the part of his store where the cleaning supplies were. No record of the transaction and no proof it was Amanda he saw. Often in high-profile cases, people want to be involved, maybe that's their bit of fame. So they persuade themselves they were a witness.
Rudy Guede, the burglar who definitely was involved, initially said Amanda was not at the murder in a Skype conversation with a friend. But later under pressure of the prosecution, he claimed Amanda and Raffaele had been there. But Rudy Guede has been a terrible liar since childhood.
Unfortunately, our criminal justice system isn't based on justice at all, but on the concept of "adversarial" confrontation more akin to the medieval practice of trial by combat, and about as fair. Lawyers go for the gut, using sheer emotional appeals to win over the jury, and the lawyer who can lie the best usually wins. This is a criminal justice system which is more criminal than just.
Our criminal justice system has become more just with new DNA technology - so jurors aren't left to make decisions based on guesses and intuition, so much.
Often juries seem to ignore the "reasonable doubt" standard and vote guilty when there's plenty of doubt, they just believe the defendant is guilty.
Which perhaps ties in to religiousness. Perhaps having one's standards for belief undermined by religion, disposes juries to believe in a defendant's guilt without good evidence, too.