Protecting the Innocent

Today, 3700 people sit on death row in America—a greater number than in any other year since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Since then, a total of 699 men and women have been executed in the United States, including 16 so far in the first two months of this year.

During this same period, 95 people—more than one out of every 100 men and women sentenced to death in the United States—have been exonerated after spending years on death row for crimes they did not commit.

People like Randall Adams, who was nearly executed for the 1976 killing of a Dallas policeman until Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, demonstrated that Adams’s principal accuser had in fact committed the crime.

And Walter McMillian, convicted on perjured testimony in a two-day trial and released seven years later after the State of Alabama admitted that prosecutors had willfully withheld evidence of his innocence.

And Anthony Porter, a mentally ill man who was just two days away from execution when the real killer was persuaded to confess—not by prosecutors, but by a private investigator working with journalism students at Northwestern University.

And Earl Washington, a mentally retarded man who served 17 years in prison—much of it on death row—for a rape and murder he did not commit and who finally regained his freedom thanks to DNA testing.

It’s cases like these that convinced such organizations as the American Bar Association—which has no position on the death penalty per se—to urge a halt to executions until each jurisdiction can ensure that it has taken steps to minimize the risk that innocent persons may be executed.

It’s cases like these that convinced Illinois Governor George H. Ryan—a Republican and a supporter of the death penalty—to put a halt to executions in Illinois until he could be certain that “everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty.”