These are the faces of those proven innocent. Since 1973, at least 140 people have been freed after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. That’s more than one innocent person exonerated for every ten (1 in 10) who’ve been executed. Wrongful convictions like these mean victims’ families suffer while the real killers remain at large and tax dollars are wasted. These cases represent much that is failing in our justice system.
What we have learned in the DNA era:
- Hundreds of DNA exonerations have given us a window into all of the things that can go wrong in a criminal case. They offer irrefutable evidence of the system’s flaws.
- DNA by itself cannot solve these problems – it can only tell us just how bad they are. And DNA evidence exists in less than 15% of criminal cases – far fewer than one would think from watching TV crime shows like CSI.
- In those few cases where DNA evidence is available, access to the DNA database or to new testing can be extremely limited.
Despite the best intentions, we can’t be right 100% of the time:
- The chance we could execute an innocent person is a risk we as a society cannot afford to take. In a system run by human beings, there is always a chance for human error.
- Executing innocent people is a risk we can completely avoid by replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Death is irreversible, Life Without the Possibility of Parole is not.
- Contrary to popular belief, the appeals process is not designed to catch many of these mistakes. These exonerations came only because of the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system – pro bono lawyers, family members, even students.
The wrong man: Stories of a broken system:
- In Colorado, the Tim Masters case shows how our system is not beyond mistakes. Masters was convicted of first degree murder for the killing of Peggy Hettrick in 1987. After maintaining his innocence and losing two separate appeals, he was granted a new trial in 2007 and exonerated after serving a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit. Had this been a death penalty case, Colorado could have been made the irrevocable mistake of executing an innocent person.
- Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for setting fire to his home, killing his three children. Experts now say that the arson theories used in the investigation are outdated. Willingham was executed for a fire that was probably an accident.
We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last 30 years. We now know that innocent people are sentenced to die. When a life is on the line, one mistake is one too many. Can we afford the risk?