Omaha World Herald
February 9, 1999
The criminal justice system only weakens the nation's capital
punishment laws when it puts someone like Anthony Porter on death row.
Porter, a convicted murderer, was freed from an Illinois prison
A professor and students from a Northwestern University investigative
journalism class had collected evidence indicating that he was
They found another man who admitted on videotape that he was the
killer. That man has been arrested.
In September, Porter's execution was stayed just 48 hours before it was due to be carried out. The Illinois Supreme Court halted the proceedings because of questions about his mental fitness. His IQ is 51.
But the investigative journalism students did not concentrate on the
impropriety of executing a mentally deficient killer. Rather, they
focused on the question of his alleged guilt. They tracked down and
re-interviewed witnesses. One eyewitness recanted his testimony against Porter, saying that investigators had pressured him into implicating the man.
The students found a woman who pointed to her ex-husband as the killer.
Then a private investigator interviewed the ex-husband, who made a
videotaped statement claiming he killed in self-defense.
If the videotaped statement holds up, Porter would become the 10th
death-row inmate to be exonerated in Illinois since the death penalty
was reinstated in 1977. A previous Northwestern University investigative journalism class was responsible for freeing 4 of the 10 in one case in 1996. Nationwide, 76 people have been released from death row after evidence turned up showing that they had been wrongly accused. (None of the cases was in Nebraska.)
For proponents of the death penalty, those statistics have to be deeply troubling. When the penalty is death, there is no margin for error.
Any possibility of innocence should be pursued - not solely by a defense attorney but by investigators and prosecutors, too. Any hint of improper pressure on witnesses to bring about a conviction and death sentence should be wrung out of the system. When a human life is at stake, ironclad certainty must be the rule.
Improper pressure on witnesses corrupts the system. When such behavior
comes to light, capital punishment takes a hit that is difficult for
its advocates to counter. Each time an innocent person is discovered on death row, capital punishment comes that much closer to being repealed - brought down because of mistakes by some of the very people who support the death penalty.
Porter, 43, spent 17 years on death row for a crime that another man
now admits. Porter was within hours of having his life taken by the state. He was forced to ride the rollercoaster of trials and appeals for no good reason.
How does a society make up for 17 years taken out of the prime of a
man's life? It doesn't. It can't. But what happened in Illinois can serve as a warning to a justice system that wields the power of life and death:
Mistakes must not happen. Conscientious people must see to it.