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Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

By Cassandra Stubbs, ACLU Capital Punishment Project | May 22, 2012

This week, Northwestern and the University of Michigan law schools released a National Registry of Exonerations, a new database chronicling the ever-growing number of exonerees from our nation’s criminal justice system.   The database includes over 2,000 people who spent time – sometimes decades – in prison after being wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. This includes over 100 wrongfully convicted of capital murder – which means they were awaiting execution before their sentences were reversed. The Death Penalty information Center, which tracks information about the death penalty, has documented 140 cases where inmates were released from death row with evidence of their innocence.

As astounding as the numbers in the database are, the list of the innocent is likely far longer than what is documented in this valuable resource – and not all of them were exonerated in time. Troy Davis, an African-American man in Georgia, Carlos DeLuna, a Latino man in Texas, and Cameron Todd Willingham, a white man in Texas, were all executed despite compelling evidence of innocence.   The judicial system failed these men twice: it failed them first by convicting them of crimes of which they were likely innocent, and it failed them again by denying them meaningful opportunities to prove their innocence, in time to save their lives.

The National Registry of Exonerations compiles explanations across cases, helping shed light on just how these wrongful convictions happen. The explanations are themselves deeply troubling: false accusations or perjury played a role in a full half of the cases (51%); official misconduct contributed to a large percentage of the wrongful convictions (42%); and junk science or false or misleading evidence played a role in almost a quarter of the cases (24%).   Although the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, along with many others, continue to push for important reforms in the area of junk science, it is hard to be optimistic that the problems of perjury or police misconduct will ever fully be untangled from the criminal justice system.   Ending the death penalty will not solve these problems – but it will make sure that no one else pays for these flaws with his or her life.

May 23, 2012 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Corruption, Deception, Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

US: New proof of executing the innocent

By Cassandra Stubbs | ACLU Capital Punishment Project | May 15, 2012

The State of Texas, long the nation’s leader in executions, has now earned the dubious title of the state most likely to execute the innocent. In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, despite compelling evidence that he was actually innocent of the arson which caused the death of his three small children. Now, newly assembled evidence suggests that Carlos DeLuna, executed by Texas in 1989, was also innocent. A team of researchers from Columbia Law School today released a new report about DeLuna’s case, Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction. The full report, along with video clips and interviews about the case, are available at the Columbia Human Rights Law Review’s website.

In 1983, Wanda Lopez was a 24-year-old single mother working at a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, when she was tragically stabbed to death. The central proof against DeLuna was the testimony of a single eyewitness (mistaken eyewitness identifications are the single largest cause of wrongful convictions). In DeLuna’s case, the eyewitness described the murderer as a Hispanic man with a full mustache. Although the eyewitness identified DeLuna — who had no mustache — after DeLuna was arrested, the witness later admitted that he was uncertain about the identification.

Worse than the mistaken identification is the failure of the police to investigate evidence pointing to a different killer, and the failure of the police and prosecutors to turn over or even acknowledge the evidence existed. From the time of his arrest until the time of his execution, DeLuna insisted on his innocence, saying that the crime was committed by an acquaintance named Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez had a long history of violent knife assaults against women and had bragged that he killed Wanda Lopez and that his “tocayo” (meaning a person with the same name) took the fall. The two men looked so much alike that even friends and family couldn’t easily tell their photos apart.

Although the police had leads that pointed to Hernandez — who later died in prison — as the killer, they failed to give that information to the defense. The prosecution argued in court that Hernandez was just a figment of DeLuna’s imagination. The new report documents these failures and others, and presents compelling evidence of Hernandez’s guilt. It shows the numerous systemic breakdowns that allowed Texas to convict, and then execute, an innocent man.

The problem of executing the innocent is not confined to Texas, as anyone who followed the Troy Davis case knows only too well. As Justice Antonin Scalia has bluntly told us, we cannot rely on our Constitution to protect the innocent from execution. The only guarantee that this tragedy will not be repeated is to end the death penalty.

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May 16, 2012 Posted by | Civil Liberties | , , , , , , | Comments Off on US: New proof of executing the innocent