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Safe and Free Without the Death Penalty: Lessons from Bo Jones and the Capital Punishment Experiment

Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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June 9, 2008

On May 1, 2008, a man woke up in Raleigh Central Prison, then completing his 16th year in prison for a murder he did not commit, having spent nearly 14 of those years on death row. Yesterday, that same man was driving with his sister from Sanderson, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. Once he arrived in D.C., he had the pleasure of getting lost in our nation’s capital, thanks to unreliable internet directions. That man was Levon “Bo” Jones, the 129th innocent man to be released from death row since 1973. Bo was released through the work of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and he was driving to D.C. to join us at our Membership Conference.

Getting lost in D.C. — amid the seat of our government, our elected representatives, our highest courts, and so many organizations fighting for their respective constituencies — is a frustrating but familiar experience for people from other places. But it got me thinking about some of our freedoms — our freedom to travel, to have relationships with people of our choosing, to worship or not worship the god or gods we choose, and to speak out and seek redress when we see injustice. When an innocent person is executed or incarcerated, he loses all of these cherished freedoms in an instant. It is a miscarriage of justice.

As Mark Rabil, assistant capital defender in North Carolina, said at the death-penalty panel this morning, the death penalty is a relic of lynching, and a shamefully racist history in our country. But I believe that the sentiments of those of us at the membership conference, notwithstanding the continuing scourge of racism, now carry the day. As we do, most Americans believe that there must be a way for the innocent to be free and for all of us to be safe. That brings me back to Bo’s case.

In his interview for an ACLU podcast today, Bo said he did not believe that it was the false accusations of the only witness against him which led to his wrongful death sentence and incarceration. No. Bo believes that it was the “system” that led to this travesty. I agree.

The system is broken when innocent people are incarcerated, and we are all less safe because the guilty remain free to commit other crimes. The system is broken when we spend millions of dollars to prop up and maintain the failed government program known as capital punishment — money that could be spent to make our criminal justice system much more reliable.

If the states with capital punishment had placed a tenth of the resources they spend on maintaining capital punishment on quality indigent defense systems — guaranteeing everyone, not just the rich, quality defense counsel — wrongful convictions could be reduced to a minimum. If, in the last 30 years, we had spent a quarter of the energy we have spent on maintaining this failed death-sentence experiment on improving fairness in discovery rules, witness identification procedures, and interrogation methods, the everyday horror stories of wrongful convictions would now be a thing of the past. And more of the guilty would be locked up, making us safer.

Bo’s case is yet another reminder that we can be safe and free — of the possibility of a truly just criminal justice system. It is now our job to make that possibility a reality.

Bo Jones’ podcast will be available on this blog tomorrow.

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