Innocence Found on Death Row
By Christopher Smart
AUGUST 4, 1997: During the past 25 years, 69 people who had been sentenced to death in the United States were eventually found to be innocent and released from their death-row prison cells.
"The current emphasis on faster executions, less resources for the defense and an expansion in the number of death cases mean that the execution of innocent people is inevitable," says a new report "Innocence and the Death Penalty."
Death penalty opponents are calling the report the best evidence yet that executions do not further justice. The report was compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
"The danger that innocent people will be executed because of errors in the criminal justice system is getting worse," the report states.
Many who were condemned to die but who were cleared before they were executed did not find freedom through the normal appeals process, the report contends. "Many of these cases were discovered as a result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists and the dedicated work of expert attorneys not available to the typical death-row inmate."
The report does not include cases of innocent people who have been executed. Two researchers, Prof. Hugo Bedau and Prof. Michael Radelet, have reported that at least 23 innocent people have been executed in the United States during this century.
"This shows an increasing level of carelessness with which the death penalty is being imposed," said Diane Rust-Tierney, director of the Capital Punishment Project for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She credits cavalier prosecutors as well as the lack of oversight by the federal courts that has been further diminished by the Effective Death Penalty Act shepherded through Congress last year by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, among others.
"If we, as a society, have become so impatient that we don't even care if we have the right person, I think we ought to recognize that it is at the cost of our own morality," Rust-Tierney said.
The report may be the best argument against the death penalty," said Carol Gnade, executive director of the Utah affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The criminal justice system is not perfect, Gnade explained. "What this report shows is that we should never trust the finality of whether a person is guilty or innocent."
But the number of people on death row across the United States continues to climb and is now estimated at 3,000.
"... The death penalty has become even more political as legislators, prosecutors and even judges promote the death penalty in their campaigns," the report notes.
But the increased rate of finding innocent people who have been sentenced to death is a clear sign that the criminal justice system is fallible, according to the report. Errors, however, can not be remedied after a person is executed.
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