More than two decades after the US state of Texas executed Carlos DeLuna, an investigative study has revealed that he was in fact innocent.
DeLuna was put to death in 1989 for stabbing and killing a petrol station cashier, Wanda Lopez, in 1983.
Now a team from Columbia University claim to have proven DeLuna's innocence. James Liebman, a law professor, and his students say DeLuna's conviction was the result of a poor police investigation, unreliable eyewitness testimony and a weak defence.
"There was no DNA that was ever found or used in this case. [The] team went to Corpus Christi in 2003 to try to get the physical evidence from the case to run a DNA analysis but that physical evidence had been checked out of the prosecutor's office and lost."
- Shawn Crowley, the co-author of Los Tocayos Carlos
Their report concluded that the murderer was Carlos Hernandez, a man who bore a striking resemblance to DeLuna.
Over the last two decades support for capital punishment in the US has been on the decline.
Nonetheless, despite the work of many groups that have raised questions about the fairness of the American justice system, around 60 per cent are still in favour of the death penalty.
Today, there are more than 3,200 people on death row. So far this year, 18 people have been executed.
But the number of death sentences is dropping every year, and more than a dozen US states have now abolished capital punishment.
Death penalty opponents say there is no way to know how many innocent people have been executed in the US.
Over the last 40 years, more than 130 have been released from death row.
"If I was to rewrite the laws I would add many procedural safeguards against the possibility of making [an] error, like requiring DNA, changing the standard of proof from beyond a reasonable doubt to any doubt whatsoever and requiring a [competent] defence lawyer…."
- Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer
Nate Fields is among those exonerated inmates. In 2009, he was acquitted of a double murder after spending almost 20 years in prison, including more than 11 years on death row.
Among other things, this is what Fields told Al Jazeera after reading about Columbia University's investigation into the DeLuna case: "The main reason why the death penalty should be abolished is because of the human factor and that is going to continue to play out as long as we have the death penalty. As humans we are going to make mistakes. Just because there are 12 people in the jury doesn't mean they can't get it wrong, they can …because of the human factor …. With the death penalty you can't bring a man back from the graveyard."
So, what are the flaws in America's implementation of capital punishment?
Joining presenter Shihab Rattansi on Inside Story Americas to discuss this are guests: Shawn Crowley, the co-author of Los Tocayos Carlos, the report that seeks to establish that Carlos DeLuna was innocent; Bruce Fein, a former US associate deputy attorney-general and a constitutional lawyer; and Richard Dieter, the executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center.
"Most of our criminal justice system is based on plea-bargains and compromises but the death penalty once it's carried out can't be taken back, we have no room for error so it is a systemic problem as well as a procedural one."
Richard Dieter, the executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center
THE CARLOS DELUNA CASE:
- DeLuna was accused of killing a petrol station clerk, Wanda Lopez, in 1983. He was executed in Texas in 1989
- A Columbia Law School report on the execution found significant problems with the conviction, particularly that it was based on the testimony of a single, unreliable eyewitness
- The report says another man had admitted to killing Lopez, that DeLuna had an ineffective defence lawyer and that he had suffered during his execution due to a problem with the injection
- The five-year investigation into DeLuna's case found him not guilty of the crime he was executed for, and suggested that police had botched the investigation
THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE US:
- More than 3,200 people remain on death row
- About 60 per cent of Americans support the death penalty, although support has dropped in the last 20 years
- So far 18 people have been executed in 2012, while 43 people were executed in 2011
- More than 1/3 of all executions took place in Texas, which has executed 482 people since reinstating the death penalty in 1982
- Out of the 50 US states, 17 have abolished the death penalty
- China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq conducted the most executions in 2011, the same year the US ranked fifth worldwide
- The US is the only Western country that imposes the death sentence
Source: Al Jazeera