The United States’ death penalty system is rife and has many well-published flaws. But one remains relatively underreported: the appeals that every condemned person is entitled to, can’t help them even if the people that testified against them during trial reverse their story.
In 2014, 39 people were executed in the United States. Many of these people spent a long time on Death Row before execution – sometimes up to 30 years. This time is spent on a lengthy, drawn-out appeals process, intended to make sure that the condemned is indeed guilty, and that the trial followed due procedure.
While these appeals, in principle, provide a good framework for making sure the death penalty is applied in a ‘fair’ way (here meaning: making sure only those we know for sure are guilty are put to death), they are not fool proof. After the initial conviction, it becomes exponentially harder for a condemned person to get exonerated, even if serious doubts persist about their guilt.
Take, for example, the case of Troy Davis. Davis was sentenced to death for the 1989 killing of a security guard in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia. He was convicted based on eye witness testimony, as there was no weapon or DNA evidence linking him to the crime. This might seem a fairly weak basis to sentence a person to death on: eye witness testimonies are proven to be notoriously unreliable, but during trials there sometimes isn’t any other evidence available. Therefore, it’s often all that’s required to sentence a person to death.
After Davis’ conviction, many eye witnesses to the crime began recanting their testimonies, saying that they were pressured by police to name Davis as the killer, or stating that they didn’t actually see who shot the security guard that night. Davis himself always maintained his innocence.
However, despite public outcry to grant a new trial, the justice system of the state of Georgia required that Davis be able to prove his absolute innocence during one of his appeals. The fact that there was no physical evidence that pointed to either Davis or somebody else made this extremely hard: an eye witness recanting her testimony is in itself not proof of innocence. Because of persisting public pressure and lingering doubts about Davis’ guilt, a new federal hearing was granted in 2010 to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.”
This seems reasonable. But the problem isn’t that Davis’ case was given too little attention or that the people involved with the case were incompetent or blood thirsty. It simply required physical proof of Davis’ innocence to set him free. Serious doubts about the conviction were not enough to halt the process. The federal hearing itself was rife with problems: some eye witnesses that supposedly recanted their testimony failed to show up, and Davis’ defence team was denied on a technicality by the court to question Sylvester Coles, a man who was present at the crime scene and who Davis accused of being the real killer. The judges eventually ruled in favour of the state, and Davis was sent back to Death Row. Further appeals proved fruitless, and on September 21st 2011, Davis was executed by lethal injection.
A Flawed System
This case exemplifies a serious flaw in the United States justice system. The appeals process is only effective when there are issues during the trial that are deemed unconstitutional, such as overt racism during jury selection, or if new physical evidence turns up in favour of the defendant. In cases such as Davis’, where no physical evidence was ever presented, it’s extremely hard for defence lawyers to even be granted a hearing. That people generally don’t care much about the rights of convicted murderers doesn’t help either; it’s often just assumed that the trial and subsequent conviction were fair, and that only the absolute worst offenders are sentenced to death. Once a person is on Death Row, his claims of innocence become less and less believable.
Of all the flaws capital punishment has – its disproportionate application to minorities and poor people (no rich person ever ends up on Death Row, and one is about four times more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for killing a black person), the huge added costs of the appeals process and separate cell blocks, and the flawed and sometimes painful execution process – the engrained difficulty of re-assessing important evidence after conviction must be one of the worst.
In any justice system there are cases where there are persisting doubts about some people’s guilt. But especially with capital punishment, which is insensitive to excuses and reimbursement, there should at least be an appeals process in place that doesn’t leave a defendant at the mercy of vindictive prosecutors, incompetent defence lawyers or overworked appeals courts. No person should ever be sentenced to death based on unreliable evidence. If guilt is no longer beyond reasonable doubt, for whatever reason, an execution is simply unjustifiable.
By: Jon Roozenbeek