One Hundred Innocent Men

Last week, Ray Milton Krone -- pegged for the 1991 stabbing death of a Phoenix waitress -- was finally let off death row. New DNA evidence proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Krone had not committed the crime. After three years on death row and a total of 10 years in prison, Krone became the 100th innocent death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973.

Compared to many others, Krone was lucky he survived long enough to prove his innocence. While Krone waited out the appeals process, more than 600 death row prisoners were put to death in the United States. He might owe his life to the arbitrary fact that Arizona doesn't kill its death row inmates at the breakneck pace of, say, Texas.

While many Americans still support the death penalty in principle, they also worry about innocent people paying the ultimate price for crimes they didn't commit. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in 2000 found that 80 percent of Americans believe an innocent person has been executed in the United States in the past five years. It is impossible to know if they're right, but with 100 innocents released in the last 29 years, it seems quite likely.

With this rate of execution, more world leaders have voiced mounting concerns about the finality of capital punishment. UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, articulated his ambivalence when accepting the "Moratorium 2000" petition for a stop to executions worldwide. "The forfeiture of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process," Annan said. "And I believe that future generations throughout the world will come to agree."

A closer look at a few of the 100 innocent people who have been released from death row gives sobering weight to Annan's statement:

- Charles Ray Giddens, an 18-year-old black man in Oklahoma, was sentenced to death for the murder of a grocery store cashier after an all white jury deliberated for only 15 minutes. Three years later, the state dropped all the charges against Giddens.

- Anthony Porter of Illinois was one of the lucky death row defendants taken on by Professor David Protess and a handful of journalism students from Northwestern University. Porter came within two days of execution in 1998 and was only granted a stay because the court wanted to examine his mental competency. Porter had an IQ of 51. One year later, his conviction was overturned.

- Timothy Hennis spent three years incarcerated in North Carolina because he resembled the actual murderer.

- Joseph Green Brown of Florida waited 13 years to be exonerated and came within 13 hours of execution before a new trial was ordered. Brown walked out -- a free man -- a year later when the state decided not to retry the case.

- The former prosecutor for Delbert Tibbs, whose conviction was overturned in Florida, said that the original investigation was tainted from the beginning. If there were ever a retrial, the prosecutor said, he would gladly appear as a witness for Tibbs.

- Peter Limone of Massachusetts was sentenced to the electric chair in 1968. Although Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1974, Limone spent an unimaginable 33 years behind bars before he was proven innocent of the charges against him.

These, of course, are the stories of the fortunate ones, saved by tireless efforts of pro-bono lawyers, new evidence or the built-in checks and balances of the justice system. Untold numbers of innocent inmates don't get those breaks.

Upon Ray Krone's release last week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) reflected on the unavoidable margin of error in capital cases. "There should be no shame in errors made by well-meaning jurors, because human error is inevitable. But what is deeply shameful is a political and legal establishment that lives in denial. What shocks me most about this case is not that yet another innocent man's life was ruined; it is that the prosecutor then called the system that did this 'the best in the world.'"

Along with Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), Leahy is leading the effort to pass the Innocence Protection Act (S.486), a bill that would provide new safeguards in capital cases, including DNA testing and highly competent lawyers. The Act currently has 25 cosponsors in the Senate, and the House already has the support of half its members for the counterpart bipartisan bill (H.R. 912).

And according to the New York Times, Illinois's Republican governor, George Ryan, boldly appointed a commission to study capital punishment in his state. Ryan's commission, which issued its report this week, "proposes a menu of reforms, among them videotaping interrogations to prevent dubious confessions, expanded use of DNA testing and diminishing reliance on single-witness or stool-pigeon accounts."

The growing support for such measures is encouraging. Most politicians want to impress their constituents as being tough on crime, so popularity often gets in the way of mercy -- especially around election time. But the more death row inmates are found innocent, the more the tide will turn among elected officials toward protecting the innocent at the risk of letting the guilty live on behind bars.

Even the most adamant supporters of capital punishment do not want the blood of innocents on their hands. We could all learn a lesson from retired Judge James McDougall, who presided over Ray Krone's 1996 re-trial. "I'm still very shaken about the whole thing," McDougall told the Associated Press. "I keep going over it in my mind, and it still bothers me ... It's not easy to tell a jury you think they're wrong."

Gabrielle Banks is Activism Editor of AlterNet.

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