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Chronic Innocence: Killing Without Cause

Chronic Innocence: Killing Without Cause

"Regardless of how each of us might feel about the death penalty, there is a common value that I believe everyone shares: no innocent person should end up on death row."
President Barack Obama

I come from a country where history records beheadings and hangings like the carnival attractions of their time. Nowadays, they are made light of with reenactments at the London Dungeons, where children are strapped into an (inactive) electric chair and their parents laugh as the comedy jester has his head cut-off. In England, capitol punishment is a thing of the past - reserved for tourists and family outings on rainy days.

I wish I could say the same for America.

Since being here, I've lost count of the number of executions that have taken place. Outside of the abolition community they go largely unnoticed, kept behind prison walls - unless a local paper or news station is having a slow day. The state returned to killing people with taxpayers' money in 1973, and since then, public presumption has been that when the needle goes in, they're killing a guilty person. Despite the controversy of the subject, we should be able to take that for granted.

Yet in the United States, 138 people in 26 states have been released from death row due to overwhelming evidence of their innocence. On average, they have each spent a decade behind bars, and some have come within hours of their execution. For there to be justice, society's most haunting fear must be the possibility of punishing an innocent person; of the system failing any individual. After all, you can release an innocent person from prison, but you can never release them from a grave. President Obama seems to understand this, but remains loath to do anything about it.

Eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated forensics, false confessions or forced admissions, and prosecutorial misconduct, are just a few of the things that can lead to wrongful conviction. In fact, for every nine prisoners executed since the death penalty was reinstated, one innocent person was condemned to die and later exonerated. We will never know how many equally blameless but less fortunate prisoners still await execution, or for whom it is already too late.

Unbelievably, supporters of capital punishment contend that the release of so many innocent people from death row is evidence that "the system works." In reality, all 138 people are alive today because of advocates who work tirelessly to plug the gaping holes in America's justice system. Un-or-underpaid grassroots organizers meet in the basement of city churches and private houses to fight individual cases, often for years, with little to no progress.

Last week, I was fortunate to meet one such advocate. Kathy Spillman, a worker for Witness to Innocence, explained that, so long as the death penalty is subject to human error, its application will remain injudicious. She spoke with passion and commitment about the "exceptional" men and women in her organization, all of whom have spent some part of their lives on death row for crimes they did not commit. These individuals have chosen to use their unique stories to teach others about the fractures in our criminal justice system, and publicly challenge the willingness of the government to play God. By sharing their experiences with audiences, Witness to Innocence speakers put human faces on an issue most of us would otherwise never encounter.

Kathy herself is also exceptional. She visited Washington to reach out to national groups, hoping to spread the message wider than her basement-based charity is currently able to. I hope to help her do just that. As our Movement so clearly states: "We believe that there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime. We appeal to our congregants and to our co-religionists and to all who cherish God's mercy and love to join in efforts to eliminate this practice which lies as a stain upon civilization and our religious conscience." It's time to relegate capitol punishment to its rightful place: in the history books.

Published: 3/31/2011

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