An updated report (PDF) by The National Registry of Exonerations indicates that a record number of people in 2013 were freed after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit. 87 people were exonerated, 40 of which were serving time for murder- including 1 who had been sentenced to die. The project, a joint effort of the Michigan and Northwestern law schools, has identified 1,304 total that have occurred since 1989. Almost half were black men.
The exoneration is the pin that pops the balloon of tough-on-crime policy, and fatally undermines the idea of a just death penalty. The report notes:
Death penalty exonerations continue at a high rate. Eight percent of known exonerations occurred in cases in which the defendants were sentenced to death (105/1281). However, since death sentences are a tiny sliver of felony convictions –less than 1/100 of 1% – this reflects a uniquely high rate of exoneration. (page 8)
When a debate about capital punishment happens, the idea that innocent people are sentenced to die- and may have already been killed- is treated too much like a hypothetical. The data is on the table, and it is chilling. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011- since reinstatement in 1974 the state had executed 12 people and exonerated 20. There are also ten executed Americans who have strong evidence supporting their innocence. The story of Carlos DeLuna is so compelling that the Columbia Human Rights Law Review devoted an entire issue to telling the story of his conviction for murder and execution- despite a different Carlos with a violent history being a much more likely suspect. DeLuna died screaming in 1989.
Few issues give me a deep chill that percolates, and washes over most of my body and moves me near tears. Capital punishment is one of them. It offends me as a human being, a Unitarian Universalist, an American citizen. When I attended a remembrance for Troy Davis, I saw a crowd of mostly black and brown, their eyes filled with sorrow, anger, and determination.
21st century America is in some ways defined by putting the innocent in prison. A misidentified black man given a rigged trial so a prosecutor could keep his conviction rate up. An Arab man held in Guantanamo despite being declared innocent years ago. A brown woman in a detention facility because despite America being her home she is an ‘illegal’ immigrant.
Every day I have to hold that knowledge in the core of my being, and recognize that there if there is no justice for the wrongly convicted, there is no justice for anyone else. As Eugene V. Debs stated to the court before his term in prison for opposing intervention in World War I:
I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
I am not free. The racism, inequity, callous disregard for people and the truth is not someone else’s issue, someone else’s problem.
It’s my problem. It’s our problem.