A Question of Innocence

December 9, 2003

 A Question of Innocence

On April 8, 2002, Ray Krone was released from prison in Arizona after DNA evidence proved that he was not responsible for the 1991 murder of a Phoenix bartender.  Krone became the 100th person exonerated and released from death row since 1973.  Convicted twice for a brutal murder, Krone spent ten years in prison, two of them on death row.  The DNA evidence that ultimately proved his innocence also implicated the real murderer.  

Unfortunately, Ray Krone's story is not unique. As of February 2004, 113 inmates had been found innocent and released from death row.  More than half of these have been released in the last 10 years. That means one person has been exonerated for every eight people executed.  

A study by Columbia University professor James Liebman examined thousands of capital sentences that had been reviewed by courts in 34 states from 1973 to 1995.  ""An astonishing 82 percent of death row inmates did not deserve to receive the death penalty,"" he said in his conclusion. ""One in twenty death row inmates is later found not guilty.""

The vast majority of those exonerated were found innocent because someone came forward to confess committing the crime; key witness testimony was found to be illegitimate; or new evidence was found to support innocence

In many other cases, it was good fortune rather than the criminal justice system that established innocence.  In several cases, college or law school students investigated cases and unearthed essential evidence.  For example, students in an investigative journalism class at Webster University uncovered evidence of misconduct by prosecutors, who talked a witness into giving false testimony and withheld crucial trial evidence, and helped get a new trial for Louisiana death row inmate Richard Clay.  If it had not been for the work of these students, an innocent person may have been put to death.  

Although there has been much attention surrounding the use of DNA testing, only 13 death row inmates of 113 have been exonerated by use of DNA.  Many people falsely believe that DNA testing is a panacea that guarantees innocent people will not be put to death.  However, it is important to note that DNA testing is not always able to determine the killer.  In many cases, there is no physical evidence to test.  DNA testing can be a critical tool for proving innocence, but it is still only available in a fraction of cases.  For instance, five of the seventeen people released from death row were released because DNA evidence revealed their innocence.

The potential risk of executing an innocent person is horrific and the ultimate indicator that America's criminal justice system is broken.  Even the most ardent proponent of capital punishment has no tolerance for the execution of innocent people.  The exoneration of 113 death row inmates undoubtedly demonstrates that the capital punishment system is in desperate need of reform.  

Case Studies

Joseph Amrine was sentenced to death for murdering a fellow inmate in 1986, a conviction based largely on circumstantial and conflicting evidence.  After the trial, three men who testified against Amrine recanted their stories, leaving no evidence linking him to the murder.  In addition, a corrections office that witnessed the murder testified that Amrine was not responsible for the death.  In a 4-3 vote in April 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered Amrine released 30 days from their mandate.  After spending 18 years on death row, Joseph Amrine was released from prison after prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to re-try him.  

Earl Washington, who was found to suffer from pronounced mental retardation, was sentenced to death in 1984 after falsely confessing to the rape and murder of a woman in Virginia.  DNA tests conducted after he was sentenced to death proved that he was not the rapist.  Mr. Washington was released in 2000, but only after serving 16 years in prison, 14 of them on death row, for a crime he did not commit.  

Anthony Porter was convicted in 1982 of a drug-related double murder.  In September 1998, 2 days before his scheduled execution, his volunteer lawyer won a stay to look into his mental competency (Porter's IQ has been assessed as between 51 and 75).  Then a vital witness recanted, and journalism students at Northwestern University, along with a volunteer criminal investigator, obtained a videotaped confession from the actual murderer.  The actual murderer was subsequently sentenced to 37 years in prison.  Released in 1999, Mr. Porter spent 16 years on Illinois death row for a murder did not commit.

Look at the average numbers of executions to exonerations here

Click here to learn about the exonerations of mentally retarded death row prisoners.

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