Convicting Innocent People Essay, Research Paper
On Jan. 31, 2000, citing a “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row,” Gov. George Ryan of Illinois made headline news by imposing a moratorium on executions in the state. While Gov. Ryan’s willingness to step outside his political box to call for a careful examination of our system of capital punishment so far is unique, the underlying problems that produced such staggeringly unfair results are not.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington think tank, more than 80 people have been released from death row on grounds of innocence since 1973. Between 1973 and October 1993, an annual average of 2.5 innocent people were released from death row. Today, the yearly average is 4.6.
Why is this happening? One answer is that the number of people on death row has increased, as states and the federal government have expanded the number of crimes punishable by death. As the net is cast wider, innocent people — many poor and poorly defended — inevitably become caught.
Second, opportunities to correct mistakes in court have been sharply curtailed. By imposing limits on death sentence appeals, the states and the federal government have effectively shortened the time between conviction and execution. While the average time between sentencing and execution is around eight years — and getting shorter — for many, it takes much longer to establish their innocence and win release from death row. If such appeals are further limited, most innocent inmates would be executed before the mistake has been uncovered.
Chief among the reasons people are wrongfully sentenced to death is the fact that most had trial lawyers who we would not want to represent us in traffic court: lawyers who sleep through trials; who are drunk or on drugs; lawyers who fail to prepare their cases; who don’t know the law; who fail to raise objections to the most blatant examples of racism and bias during trial; as well as those who are simply overworked, underpaid and woefully unprepared to defend a person on trial for his life.
Is the prospect of executing the innocent a real problem? Ask Anthony Porter, who was released in February 1999 at the request of the State’s Attorney after another man confessed to the crime for which Porter was sentenced to die. Porter came within two days of being executed. He is alive today not because the system worked but because of the efforts of the journalism students at Northwestern University who investigated his case.
Regardless of our personal views on the death penalty, it is time to take a careful look at the practice. It’s time to follow the lead of Illinois, which places fairness above the passing fancy of politics.