Blog of Rights

138 Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty

By Anna Arceneaux, Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 3:00pm

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote that there has not been "a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."

Soon it may become clear that Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for a crime he did not commit. But, in the meantime, the number of innocent people exonerated from death rows across the country continues to grow, and has now reached 138. Prosecutors acknowledged last week that Anthony Graves spent 12 years of his life on Texas' death row and six more in jail for a crime he never committed. As the prosecutors have publicly stated, Anthony "is an innocent man."

Anthony's life may not have been taken by the failed government program that is the death penalty. But 18 years of his life were completely destroyed. We need not wait for absolute proof that an innocent person has been executed when the number of innocent people sentenced to death shows that the system is broken and far too unreliable to justify the use of an irrevocable sanction like the death penalty. Anthony's case exemplifies some of the most serious problems with this broken system.

Texas prosecutors sought the death penalty against Anthony for the 1992 murders of six people, including a teenager and four children in Somerville, Texas. No physical evidence tied Anthony to the murders. He had no connection to the victims and no motive to kill them. His name surfaced in the investigation only when Robert Carter, the father of one of the victims and a suspect himself, implicated him during an intense police interrogation. Though Robert's statement quickly began to unravel in many ways, police never questioned his claim that Anthony had been involved. They ignored Anthony's friends and family, who confirmed Anthony's alibi: at the time of the crime, he was sleeping at his mother's apartment.

The state of Texas only obtained its conviction against Anthony by presenting false evidence and hiding evidence showing Anthony's innocence. The night before his testimony at Anthony's trial, Carter recanted his statement and told prosecutors that he had acted alone, but as Carter later put it, the district attorney "didn't want to hear it." Prosecutors never revealed this recantation to Anthony's lawyers. Facing intense pressure by the prosecution, Carter reverted to his original story at trial. On the basis of Carter's testimony alone, Anthony was convicted and sentenced to death.

Anthony's lawyers did not learn that Carter admitted to acting alone until they deposed him in 1998. Texas appellate courts turned a deaf ear against this admission and ignored the overwhelming evidence of Anthony's innocence. It was not until 2000, when Anthony's original prosecutor Charles Sedesta gave an interview to Geraldo Rivera for an NBC special, that the tide of the case turned. Sedesta told Rivera that Carter had recanted his allegation against Graves just before trial.

This remarkable new admission also fell on deaf ears when a federal district court denied Anthony's appeal. Anthony then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. In 2006, with a stinging criticism of the lower courts, the appeals court found that the prosecutor had allowed Carter to make false statements under oath and granted Anthony a new trial. Since then, Anthony has been in the Burleson County Jail awaiting trial. After reinvestigating the case for the last four years, new prosecutors have finally acknowledged that Anthony was, in fact, innocent and dropped the charges against him. The new prosecutors have stated that this case "could best be described as a criminal justice system's nightmare."

On Friday, Texas governor Rick Perry said that Anthony's exoneration was a "good example of the system working."

But what Anthony's case shows, instead, is that the death penalty system is a total failure. Had the system worked, Anthony Graves would never have spent one day incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Anthony lost 18 years of his life and only narrowly escaped execution because the system — Texas law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts — repeatedly failed him. But for Sebesta's happenstance interview with Rivera, the tireless commitment of lawyers, volunteer students, and investigative journalists, and the fortuitous intervention of a federal appeals court — this innocent man would not be alive today.

Anthony's exoneration proves that the death penalty system does not work. Now that 138 people have been exonerated from death row, including 12 from Texas, we should abolish the death penalty to ensure that Anthony Graves is the last.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that the number of people exonerated from death row was 139. That was incorrect. The current number of death row exonerees is 138.

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