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We Become What We Hate: Gazing into the Abyss of the Death Penalty, Part 4

(We Become What We Hate. . . )

Everyday, innocent people are jailed. Many are later released by the judicial system. An executed person, obviously, cannot be released.

Speaking years after he had witnessed the bloodshed of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette said, “I shall ask for the abolition of the punishment of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.”

A two-year study of capital punishment by Hugo Bedau, of Tufts University, and Michael Radelet, of the University of Florida, documents that, in this century, 417 people were wrongly convicted of capital offenses and 23 were actually executed. At least 69 people have been released from death row since 1972, the result of being wrongly convicted.

Recently (2/5/99) the AP ran this story from Chicago. “A man who spent 16 years on death row was freed today after college journalists uncovered new evidence and another confessed to the slaying. Judge Thomas Fitzgerald said, ‘news reports of significant evidentiary developments’ put into question whether Anthony Porter actually committed the crime he was convicted of.”

Following are two more stories about people sent to death row, then released:

Clarence Brandley (released 1990, Texas) In 1980, a hard-working black high school janitor, Clarence Brandley, and his white co-worker found the body of a missing teenage girl who was brutally raped and murdered in the school. Interrogated by the police, they were told, “One of you two is going to hang for this.” Looking at Brandley, an officer said, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.” Despite this threat, a lie detector test confirmed Brandley’s truthful statements. Even with the manipulation of the jury pool by the prosecutor, resulting in 12 white jurors, a hung jury resulted. Not to be denied, the prosecutor retried Brandley, again restricting all black jurors from the jury pool. This time the jury, with the judge’s approval, convicted Brandley, and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. Brandley was the only suspect; other leads were ignored by the police, and the courtroom reeked of racism. In 1986, Centurion Ministries came to Brandley’s aid. Evidence had meanwhile emerged that another man had committed the murder for which Brandley was awaiting execution.

Randall Dale Adams (released in March 1989, Texas). The subject of the acclaimed documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” Adams was sent to death row in 1977 for killing a policeman. Prosecutors manufactured evidence to convict Adams and relied on the perjured testimony of the man who actually murdered the officer. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously set aside his conviction in 1989.

Although Brandley’s and Adam’s innocence were finally discovered, many others have not been so ‘fortunate.’ Because of political and judicial interests in speeding up executions, and the tightening of procedural requirements, Roger Keith Coleman, despite new evidence suggesting the possibility that he was not the murderer, was executed anyway, in May, 1992. His attorneys apparently filed his post-conviction appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court one day late—violating a procedural requirement which the state court said precluded evidentiary review of the case.

Upon examining capital cases, Bedau and Radelet found numerous instances of overzealous prosecution, mistaken or perjured testimony, co-defendants who testified against the other to receive a more lenient sentence for themselves, faulty police work, coerced confessions, suppressed exculpatory evidence, inept defense counsel, racial bias, seemingly conclusive circumstantial evidence, community pressure for a conviction, and, at times, blatant politics (such as a D.A.’s decision to seek the death penalty in a particular case because he was campaigning for re-election). All of this explains why the judicial system cannot guarantee that justice will never miscarry.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “no matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.”

4. The Administration of the Death Penalty is Seriously Flawed When the Supreme Court found death penalty laws constitutionally unacceptable in Furman vs. Georgia (1972), the majority of the court concentrated its objections on the fact that death penalty laws had been applied in a “harsh, freakish, and arbitrary” manner.

Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, who helped rewrite the death penalty laws in the 1970s, said in this decade, “20 years have passed since this court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly and with reasonable consistency or not at all, and despite the effort of the states and courts to devise legal formulas to meet this challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, and mistake.”

Justice Blackmun realizes that it is a “delusion” to believe that administration of the death penalty will ever be applied consistently, and fairly. “From this day forward, I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored to develop rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than to continue to coddle the court’s delusion that fairness has been achieved, I feel obligated simply to concede that the death penalty has failed.”

Justice Blackmun concludes, “It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations can ever save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. I am optimistic that this court eventually will conclude that the effort to eliminate arbitrariness while preserving fairness ‘in the infliction of (death) is so plainly doomed to failure...that the death penalty must be abandoned altogether.’ (Godfrey v. Georgia, 1980). I may not live to see that day, but I have faith that it will eventually arrive.”

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