‘We can be sure innocents died’, US death row exonerations show

Death Penalty Information Center adds 11 exonerations, finds consistent misconduct and ‘racial bias’ in cases.

An activist opposing the death penalty protests during a snowstorm outside of the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana on January 15, 2021 [File: Bryan Woolston/Reuters]

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) added 11 cases to its “Innocence List” that tracks American death row exonerations on Thursday, bringing the total to 185 and raising concerns over the likelihood more innocents – especially people of colour – will be condemned.

“Everybody’s worst fear about capital punishment is that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and executed,” Robert Dunham, the DPIC’s executive director, said in the report on the added exonerations. “But the more we learn about what actually happens in these cases, the worse the problem gets.”

DPIC has found wrongful death penalty convictions in “virtually every part of the country, with exonerations documented in 29 states and 118 different counties”, the report found. By their estimate, one in every 8.3 people sentenced to death in the United States since capital punishment resumed in 1970 were exonerated.

Sister Paula Damiano addresses protesters against the death penalty as they gathered in Terre Haute, Indiana, the location of the federal death chamber, on July 17, 2020 [File: Michael Conroy/AP Photo]

The cases reveal trends of “misconduct and racial bias”, the DPIC said. About 70 percent involved misconduct from police, prosecutors or other government officials. Roughly 80 percent “involved some combination of misconduct or perjury/false accusation and more than half involved both”.

Black exonerees saw misconduct in their cases at a much higher rate, 78.8 percent, than white exonerees at 58.2 percent. “Black exonerees spent an average of 4.3 more years waiting for exoneration than white exonerees”, the report said.

A major concern involving cases that involve capital punishment is false evidence, including false confessions – which occur at rates as high as 25 to 30 percent in exonerations won by DNA evidence, according to Innocence Project data cited by awareness organisation FalseConfessions.org.

Forensic practices, such as hair analysis, bitemark analysis and bloodshot patterns, played an outsized role in wrongful convictions.

A landmark 2009 study from the National Academy of Sciences found little scientific underpinning to many forensic disciplines used to convict people in courtrooms.

The study (PDF) said “there is little doubt that some existing federal entities are too wedded to the current ‘fragmented’ forensic science community, which is deficient in too many respects”.

DNA evidence has played a profound role in exonerations, the DPIC report said. DNA uncovered mistakes in official misconduct, false confessions, mistaken witness identification and more in capital punishment cases at much higher rates than cases where no DNA was present.

Still, DNA testing remains a challenge for many cases, including those where no DNA evidence was present or where courts have blocked DNA evidence from being tested. “[M]any more” cases may go undetected because of this, the DPIC said.

Kirk Bloodsworth, who leads the Witness to Innocence organisation and is the first death row survivor to be exonerated by DNA, said, “with such a large number of mistakes uncovered, there’s no need to wonder any more, we can also be sure that innocent people have been executed”.

Capital punishment blitz

Despite concerns over capital punishment, the federal government conducted 13 executions between 2020 and the end of former President Donald Trump’s administration in January 2021, including the first killing of a female inmate since 1953.

The executions were uniformly challenged based on faulty evidence or the mental acuity of the condemned, though none won reprieves, according to the DPIC’s data.

However, most states are using capital punishment less, or are outright abolishing the death penalty, according to the DPIC.

Virginia is set to become the first southern state to abolish the death penalty after slight differences in bills passed by the state House and Senate are reconciled.

President Joe Biden is also under pressure from rights groups to end the federal death penalty. Biden has signalled opposition to capital punishment, though his administration has yet to take action.

Source: Al Jazeera