This post goes out to the Supreme Court for their almost uncannily bad timing (with a special shout out to Alito).
On the heels of a major story (broke by the Chicago Tribune) indicating that Texas likely executed an innocent man in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the bizarre death penalty law in Kansas (which says that juries should impose death sentences if aggravating evidence of a crime’s brutality and mitigating factors explaining a defendant’s actions are equal in weight). The vote was 5-4, with Alito tipping the scale.
According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the recently released Chicago Tribune story is the fourth time since December 2004 that a major U.S. newspaper, though investigative reporting, has seriously called into question the guilt of a person who has been executed. The others:
— In December 2004, a Chicago Tribune series on junk science concluded that Cameron Todd Willingham, executed earlier that year, had been convicted on the basis of discredited arson analysis. A recent report by the Innocence Project, conducted by a team of leading arson experts, supports the Tribune story.
— In May 2005, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Larry Griffin, executed June 21, 1995, for the murder of Quinten Moss, may well have been innocent. A man wounded in the shooting said Griffin was not the gunman. A police officer on the scene revised his account, first given at trial. And St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has re-opened an investigation of the case.
— In November 2005, the Houston Chronicle reported on the case of Ruben Cantu, executed in 1993. The Chronicle reported that the person who identified Cantu said that he only did so because he believed the police wanted him to select Cantu. Sam Millsap, the Bexar County District Attorney when Cantu was prosecuted, has said that he has no reason to doubt the recantation, and regrets that a death sentence was sought in the case. The current Bexar County district attorney is investigating the case.
“The execution of one innocent person is too many and now we are dealing with four very disturbing reports in the past 19 months,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “We see common themes in these wrongful executions, which tell us exactly the wrongs we need to right. Prosecutorial and police misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel and flawed testimony characterized each of these cases, and faulty eyewitness identification and lack of credible evidence were factors in at least three of the four.”
You’d think, given the increasing uncertainty about death penalty convictions and the proven racial disparities in sentencing, that we would start setting the bar higher for death penalty convictions. Instead, a majority on the Supreme Court is content to keep the bar abysmally low.
Lisa in Pittsburgh