Friday, September 23, 2011

How innocent people are sentenced to death

Like so many things in life, the average American probably assumes that they or someone they love couldn't be wrongly sentenced to death. The Innocence Project explains how innocent people are convicted of crimes. In the aftermath of the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia this week, it's worth considering how it could happen to you.

While the ACLU of PA takes no position on the innocence or guilt of anyone currently before the courts, we know shady circumstances when we see them.

Your children die in a house fire. Dennis Counterman of Allentown, Daniel Dougherty of Philadelphia, and Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas all lost children tragically in house fires.

Counterman spent 18 years in prison, including 11 on death row, after prosecutors withheld evidence that cast doubt over his guilt and even cast doubt over the cause of the fire. He pled guilty to lesser charges after winning a new trial.

Willingham was executed in 2004. Forensic experts say that not only was he not guilty but the fire wasn't even arson. It was an accident.

Dougherty wasn't a suspect in the house fire that killed his sons until 14 years later when he and his wife went through a messy divorce. Dougherty is on death row today. The evidence in the Dougherty case is eerily similar to that in the Willingham case.

Someone you know is killed. Ray Krone, a native of York County who was a mailman in Arizona, was a regular at the bar where Kim Anacona was a bartender. In December, 1991, Kim was killed at the bar after closing. She had confided in a friend that she was romantically interested in Ray and that he would help her clean up that night. Ray was convicted largely on bite mark evidence, but it was discovered later that five dental experts told the district attorney that the bite mark on the victim did not match Ray. A sixth expert told the DA it did match, and the case moved forward.

Ray spent ten years in prison, including more than three on death row. His appeals options were largely exhausted when he was freed by DNA evidence in 2002. Krone's case was featured in the book The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice by A&E television personality Bill Kurtis.

Acquaintances of William Nieves (pdf) and Harold Wilson were murdered in Philadelphia in separate cases, and both Nieves and Wilson were sentenced to death. Nieves was acquitted at retrial when it was discovered that witnesses had identified the perpetrator as someone of a different race, and Wilson was acquitted at retrial, in part by DNA evidence from someone other than the victims and Wilson.

Walter Ogrod of Philadelphia is on death row today for the murder of a young girl from his neighborhood. No physical evidence ties Walter to the case, and he was convicted only on a questionable confession he gave after 30 hours at the police station and on testimony from a jailhouse snitch who made a career of testifying against fellow inmates. In 2004, City Paper of Philadelphia published a two part series on the case.

You're standing there with a crowd when someone is killed. That's what happened to Troy Davis.

The Davis case has brought energy around the death penalty that I have not seen in 11 years of abolition activism. National ACLU has an action page where you can do more to support the effort to end capital punishment.

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