The death penalty does nothing to keep us safe. Let’s end it now.
A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney. Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images.
I was a 35-year-old military veteran working for the U.S. Postal Service in Phoenix when my life was turned upside down. I was arrested and charged for a crime I knew nothing about. My trial only lasted four days and the jury convicted me after deliberating for only four hours. A Maricopa County, Arizona judge sentenced me to death in 1992 because I did not show remorse.
I was innocent. How could I show remorse for something I didn’t do?
I spent 10 years in Arizona prisons, including nearly three years on death row. It took a decade to finally get DNA testing — testing that was objected to by the prosecutor’s office — which not only exonerated me but actually identified the true perpetrator. After the court vacated my conviction, the Maricopa County prosecutors dropped the charges, and in 2002, I became the 100th person in the country to be exonerated from death row. Since that time, the number of death row exonerees nationwide has nearly doubled.
By not spending exorbitant amounts of money on a system that does nothing to deter crime, greater resources would be available for other areas of public safety, such as cases currently uninvestigated and unprosecuted, evidence based community crime prevention programs, and even conviction integrity measures.
Taking just my case as an example, if law enforcement had more resources for the initial investigation, it may have been longer than two days and may have found the actual perpetrator. At the time of the murder for which I was convicted, the actual perpetrator was on probation for a violent offense. He matched the description of a man seen near the location of the murder and it was later determined that shoe prints, palm prints and blood found at the scene matched him as well.
But I was mistakenly arrested and, three weeks later, he committed another violent crime. Think about the pain that could have been prevented if the money wasted pursuing my death sentence had been spent more wisely.
Nationally, DNA is only recovered in roughly 12% of murder cases. Most wrongful convictions are a result of mistaken eyewitness testimony, false confessions, prosecutor misconduct and the use of junk science. In the majority of cases where DNA is not available, there is often no scientific evidence to check the accuracy of human beings. In my case, bite mark testimony was admitted that was later established to have no scientific foundation and led to many other wrongful convictions nationwide.
When violence impacts a community, law enforcement feels pressure to offer an answer, and this can lead to them developing tunnel vision and not investigating crimes to their fullest. For some, it leads them to malfeasance or hiding exculpatory evidence.
The bottom line is that a system run by human beings can never be perfect. It can be influenced by passion, bias and ambition.
Growing up, I believed in our justice system, believed juries got it right, and I was fine with the death penalty. But today, I know the horrible injustice that can happen to anyone. We cannot continue to uphold a system that wrongfully sentences innocent people to death. We cannot continue to uphold a system that does nothing to keep us safe.
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