The death penalty and our corrupted justice system

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, September 22, 2011 12:06 EDT
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Condolences to Troy Davis's family; I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a family member because the state railroaded him into the death penalty to appease a bloodthirsty and unduly frightened public. I hope the outrage over this case is channeled into a more robust opposition to the death penalty.  If we want it to end, we have to make it a priority. 

Lindsay has an excellent response to my argument that death penalty activism should get away from the abstract question of whether or not the state has a "right" to kill someone—which I believe encourages people to think more of worst case scenarios like obviously guilty serial killers who have no claim to life after all they've done—and move more towards questions about how the death penalty cannot be enacted in a way that's clean, fair, and non-corrupting. I want to clarify what I mean by this, since Lindsay quotes some of my piece in the Guardian about Rick Perry and how the death penalty increases bloodthirstiness.  I want to be clear that I incorporate this larger critique into my "focus on the procedure/the system" argument.  I'm proud of that piece because I think I lay out a good case for why the death penalty actually makes it easier to railroad an innocent person.  Capital cases send the message that someone must pay for this, and whether or not the someone is guilty stops being as important.  Blood for blood.  Lindsay correctly identifies the pro-death penalty arguments as being purely revenge-oriented. What's important to remember is that, historically speaking, "blood for blood" doesn't necessarily mean you get the blood of the person who actually drew blood.  Throughout most of history, getting the blood of their child or their wife or their parent or their friend would do.  I have a strong feeling that much of the "blood for blood" thinking in capital cases allows people to accept substitute executions. For many people, that Davis was likely innocent isn't the point—one family lost a family member, so another must sacrifice.  This creates symmetry and people watching can walk away.  Except of course the two families who are still missing their members, but they get lost in the shuffle.

Revenge isn't justice.  The fact that a proxy murderer is so easy to kill demonstrates this.

My concern with the Troy Davis case is that the amount of attention he got will convince people that his situation is uncommon. What I want people to emphasize in the conversations they have about this going forward is that he's literally just one of many, and that his situation is actually quite common. The state of Illinois took it upon themselves to shove aside the typical approach to death penalty cases—which is to conceal evidence of innocence, railroad defendents appealing on the grounds of a mistrial, and just do everything they can to get someone to the death chambers whether they're guilty or not—and found that 6% of their defendents sitting on death row were not guilty. That's 20 people in one state alone. 

Some cases:

When the fire broke out, Hobley, 26, escaped the flames without shoes and wearing only underwear. He consistently maintained his innocence, alleging that the officers tortured him and — when that failed — fabricated a confession…….

The detectives claimed the confession was voluntary, but Jones claimed he signed it because he had been beaten by Hood and Markham. Jones testified that Hood struck him in the head three or four times with a black object about six inches long before Markham said, "Don't hit him like this because he will bruise" and proceeded to punch Jones repeatedly in the stomach…..In 1997, the DNA testing established conclusively that Jones was not the source of the semen recovered from the victim. Even then, prosecutors refused to abandon the case. They stalled Jones's release until, facing a retrial, they finally dropped all charges against him on May 17, 1999.

They were arrested three weeks after the crime when a witness, Phyllis Santini, went to the police with a story implicating them. Both men professed their innocence, but police found a watch taken from one of the victims in Cobb's room. Cobb claimed he bought the watch for $10 from Johnny Brown, Santini's boyfriend….. Before enrolling in law school, Falconer took a summer job in a factory, where Santini also worked. One day she confided that she and her boyfriend — Brown — had robbed a restaurant and shot someone.

It was Caraway's testimony that ultimately sent Smith to death row, but that testimony was dubious for several reasons….. irst, Caraway had been smoking crack cocaine. Second, she claimed Willis was alone when the killer stepped out of shadows and fired the fatal shot, but two other witnesses said they were standing beside Willis when he was murdered. Third, Caraway's boyfriend, Pervis (Pepper) Bell, was an alternative suspect in the murder. Finally, Caraway, according to her account, was across the street when the crime occurred and, while she positively identified Smith, the two persons who were standing beside Willis were within only two or three feet of the killer and could not identify Smith.

The reprieve was granted not out of concern that Porter might be innocent but solely because he had tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure he could comprehend what was about to happen to him, or why. The court's intent was merely to provide time to explore the question of the condemned man's intelligence, but it had an unanticipated consequence: It gave a Northwestern University Professor David Protess, private investigator Paul Ciolino, and a team of journalism students time to investigate the case and establish Porter's complete innocence…… On January 29, 1999, Alstory Simon's now-estranged wife, Inez Jackson, told Protess, Ciolino, and two of the students that she had been present when Simon shot Green and Hillard. She said she did not know Anthony Porter, but that he most certainly had nothing to do with the crime. Four days later, on February 3, Alstory Simon confessed on videotape to Ciolino, asserting that he had killed Hillard in self-defense after the two argued over drug money. Simon claimed the shooting of Marilyn Green had been accidental.

On Tuesday, July 7, 2009, 43-year-old Ronald Kitchen, who confessed under extreme physical duress to taking part in five murders 21 years ago, was exonerated and freed from prison…. Kitchen’s conviction rested primarily on his confession, but also involved a jailhouse snitch, Willie Williams, who has admitted that he lied when he testified that both Kitchen and Reeves had confessed the crime to him.

Reading these cases is a revealing peek into how quickly justice is thrown out the window in order to get someone—anyone, really—on the hook for these murders. Innocent people were beaten for hours, suffocated, and threatened into confessing, which they often recanted as soon as the torture stopped, if they weren't too despondent and broken to stop caring. Jailhouse snitches facing positive attention and probably some rewards just made stuff up to convict them. Actual murderers and their friends turned the innocents in, and the cops were so happy to have a name they didn't bother to investigate the people who might have a motivation to get someone else on the hook for the crime.  Needless to say, black people are ridiculously overrepresented in these cases.

That's just in Illinois. Other state governments that are invested in the death penalty haven't been so brave as to revisit these cases honestly. I strongly suspect they are as likely—probably more likely in some cases—to have as many innocent people just sitting on death row. While getting falsely convicted of any crime sucks, death row is far worse for a couple of reasons. One is that you're sitting around waiting to die, of course, and you have to spend oodles of your time just trying not to die by appealing your case. Second of all, death row is worse for most prisoners than regular prison. You're often given shittier accomodations and you don't get to interact with other people as much.  You're basically being quietly tortured the whole time. Damien Echols, who was falsely convicted and sentenced to death and has been recently released with the other two of the West Memphis Three, has had his health seriously degraded by the conditions of death row

Someone points to the river, noting the geographical irony of the party’s location. But Damien, with his wife of 13 years, Lorri Davis, glued to his side, can’t see that far. After years in an isolation cell less than 12 by 8 feet, he’s lost his distance vision……

Five hours a week, alone, in a covered, outdoor cell offered scant sunlight and no real chance to exercise. A thin pad on a concrete bed was hard on his bones.

And in a fucked up way, he's one of the lucky ones, since people championed him and he finally got out.  A lot of people don't have that advantage. And even then, the state was so invested in making sure someone paid for the tragic murder of these three little boys that they basically showed utter indifference to the lack of evidence linking the West Memphis Three to the crime. Even at the end, they extracted a guilty plea, because that's how much the system is geared towards conviction over justice. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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