EDITORIAL - New York Times, May 23, 1999:
Innocents on Death Row
Last week, Illinois exonerated Ronald Jones for the rape and murder that was scheduled to send him to his death.
When DNA tests were finally performed eight years after he was sentenced to die, they proved that the crime could not have been committed by Mr. Jones, who says that he confessed because Chicago police beat him severely. Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, it has executed 12 men. It has also exonerated 12 after they were able to prove their innocence. Some had come within days of execution.
It is the rare death-row inmate who does not claim to be innocent. But many states are finding, to their horror, that it is not a rarity that this claim is true.
Mr. Jones is one of some 79 men and women released from death rowsince the modern death penalty began in 1973 -- 1 for every 7 people executed.
A wrongful conviction, of course, means that the real killer has gone free. The revelations of wrongful convictions are having an unusual political effect on the death penalty, giving support to bills in several states that would block executions until the death penalty was applied more justly. Some are even supported by vocal death-penalty proponents. New York, however, is moving in the wrong direction.
The exonerations are not a sign that the system works. The innocence of many death-row prisoners was discovered only because outsiders went to great time and expense to investigate when the courts would not. The Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law in New York, founded by Peter Neufeld and the DNA expert Barry Scheck, has helped to free 7 death-row inmates.
Students at Northwestern University working with a journalism professor, David Protess, found the evidence that exonerated 3 of those on death row in Illinois.
No system that requires college students to provide justice can be called functional.
There is no way to know how many innocent people have been executed because the dead do not search for champions to prove their case.
Only Florida, with 18 exonerations, has had more than Illinois, but it is likely that other states also have many innocents on death row.
Alabama pays defense lawyers a maximum of $2,000 in a capital case, and other states pay not much more. Such meager fees often buy minimal or no defense, which greatly increases the possibility of a wrongful conviction.
In addition, statutes and judicial decisions at the state and Federal levels have limited courts' abilities to review the claims of death-row prisoners. Some states have executed people with credible evidence of innocence because their claims were raised too late or had other technical glitches. Congress and many states have also cut financing, in some cases to zero, for lawyers who represent convicted death-row inmates for their appeals. Some convicts with serious arguments of innocence, then, simply cannot get heard.
The American Bar Association in 1997 called for a moratorium on executions until the death penalty could be administered fairly and with less risk to the innocent.
The high-profile exonerations have increased support for a moratorium in various states.
In March, the Illinois House passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions and setting up an independent group to study the application of the death penalty in the state.
Illinois is also likely to increase funds for death-penalty lawyers. In Nebraska, death-penalty supporters and opponents joined to passa law last week that would stop executions for 2 years.
New York, however, is taking steps that could make wrongful convictions more likely. Gov. George Pataki is seeking to expand the death penalty. Chief Judge Judith Kaye, apparently bowing to criticism from the Governor, recently reduced fees for capital defense lawyers.
Prisoners Legal Services, the group that would monitor conditions on death row, is in danger of closing unless the hostile Mr. Pataki and the legislature can agree on its financing.
Even supporters of the death penalty should be strong advocates of measures that would give everyone accused of a capital crime a competent and adequately paid lawyer.
Every death-row resident needs access to DNA testing, a decen attorney and the chance to introduce evidence of innocence no matter when it is uncovered.
This page has long opposed the death penalty in all cases.
But even its most ardent supporters should be troubled by the likelihood that people are being executed for crimes they did not commit.