The death penalty -– the ultimate punishment for unspeakable crimes — was once considered the absolute achievement of the justice system. Death row inmates were supposedly prosecuted to a higher standard, with automatic appeals and indisputable evidence. There is a life at stake, after all, right? But, like all socially engineered systems, they are fallible, especially when mixed up with politics, racism, a rush to ‘solve’ a case for the victim’s family, and then used against people who are poor, underprivileged, uneducated and sometimes even mentally challenged.
Most death row inmates profess innocence: turns out some are!
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is found in every cell of every being. Even castoffs such as hair follicles, fingernail clippings, saliva, urine and other fluids carry DNA code. 99.9% of human DNA sequences are the same in every person — however, enough of the DNA is different in each person to distinguish one individual from another. By including the way in which repeat sequences are varied, the odds of a match are 1 in 5 million. DNA can determine who was involved by testing biological samples usually found on the victim or at the scene.
Unfortunately for many death row inmates, DNA sequencing was not developed until 1984 and not admitted by the courts until 1987. Once it was, attorneys started looking back at convictions to see if the truth could come out. In 1988, when Illinois Governor George Ryan required that all 25 death row inmates be subjected to DNA testing, more than half could be exonerated.
The ripple effect: more innocents given hope.
Kirk Bloodsworth was the first inmate on death row to have DNA unlock his cell. An honorably-discharged Marine, he was convicted of the sexual assault, rape and premeditated murder of a 9-year-old girl in 1985. Five eyewitnesses testified he had been with the victim, but he continued to maintain his innocence. After reading about death sentences could be successfully challenged using new DNA technologies, he asked for the test. Misplaced evidence in the form of the victim’s panties were found in a bag in the judge’s chambers and were tested. Sure enough, a different man’s DNA was discovered. It was not until the real killer was identified by that DNA that Kirk was finally exonerated and released.
A paper cup is not skin.
Ray Krone was convicted for the 1991 rape and murder of an acquaintance who was found dead in the restroom of the bar where she worked. Even though he was far away at the time, his crime was having the same blood type as the victim. Exemplar bite marks on a Styrofoam cup were close enough to those left on the body to look at him with suspicion. The suspicion turned to charges supported by faulty evidence and resulted in a death sentence. He won a retrial, but jurors once again considered the State’s so-called bite mark expert to be reliable. In any event, Ray was taken off death row and the judge, mentioning his doubts that Ray was the killer, gave him a life sentence instead. In 2002, DNA testing of another man matched the DNA samples of the victim and Ray was released.
Guilty of being black.
In the 1986 murders of two elderly women in Oklahoma, police criminologists used blood evidence to make broad generalities and a poor conclusion about the probability of the perpetrator. In a neighborhood sweep for African American men with Type A blood and an allotype genetic profile attributed with more frequency to blacks, Robert Miller was picked up. During a 12-hour interrogation, while Robert was obviously stoned on grass and PCP, his ramblings were turned into a confession. Robert was using his ‘psychedelic powers’ to ‘help the police’ by ‘seeing the crime through the killer’s eyes’. The police were not amused. He was sentenced to death.
In 2002, forensic scientists examined the semen and blood evidence and concluded that he was not a match. The video of the interview was discredited, hair evidence was determined to be ‘essentially meaningless’ and he was given a new trial. On January 22, 1998, he was a free man.
Innocence gathering steam.
To date, there have been 311 post-conviction DNA exonerations from retrials in the US. 18 of those innocents lived on death row. The true perpetrators have been identified in 152 of those cases.
These are people like Ron Jones, who was incarcerated for the rape and murder of a young mother in Chicago. His confession had been beaten out of him. He was on death row for eight years before DNA cleared him. Since there was no evidence of an accomplice, Ron could not have been there. In 1997, the State of Illinois dropped all charges.
Or Ryan Matthews, who had just turned 17 when he was convicted of murder during a robbery. Seven DNA tests on the mask and other items from the crime scene did not match Ryan, and he was ultimately released.
These are just a few of the stories. Organizations like the Innocence Project as well as people with a conscience, like Sharon Snyder, a 70-year-old court clerk who was fired for insubordination 9 months before her retirement. She has spent 34 years on the job. Her crime? Advising Robert Nelson on how to conduct a DNA defense. He was convicted in 1984 to 50 years for a rape in Kansas City, and he was released on June 12, 2012 due to DNA evidence, just few days before Sharon, his advisor was fired.
There is injustice in this world, of that, there is no doubt.
Your Turn: Do you have any other examples of death row inmates who were exonerated when their case was reexamined? Believe in the death penalty and want to make your voice heard? Tell us in the comments.