Innocence Project position on the death penalty
The Innocence Project supports a moratorium on capital punishment while the causes of wrongful convictions are fully identified and remedied. This has been the Innocence Project’s position since our inception in 1992, and it is the same position the American Bar Association adopted more than a decade ago.
For more than 15 years, the Innocence Project has worked to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to protect the innocent and enhance law enforcement’s ability to identify the guilty.
Our work has proven that innocent people are convicted of crimes they did not commit, and these exonerations illustrate the causes of wrongful convictions that must be remedied.
These DNA exonerations are a window into the criminal justice system’s flaws: While DNA testing is an option in just a fraction of all criminal cases, the factors proven to cause wrongful convictions exist regardless of whether the case involves DNA. Specific to the death penalty, our work has shown that innocent people are sentenced to die.
Of more than 230 people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing:
- More than 25% were convicted of murder;
- Seventeen were sentenced to die;
- Others were charged with capital murder but narrowly escaped the death penalty;
- Still others would likely have been charged with capital crimes if the death penalty had been in place at the time of their trials.
We have also worked on cases of people who were executed before DNA testing could be conducted to confirm guilt or prove innocence, and we are aware of several non-DNA cases where evidence of innocence surfaced after people were executed.
On the federal level and in every state that currently allows capital punishment, policymakers should enact moratoriums and engage experts from all aspects of the criminal justice system to better understand the causes of wrongful convictions and remedies that are proven to minimize the possibility of wrongful executions.
Policymakers should then adopt and implement reforms that address all of the causes of wrongful conviction, assess the effectiveness of those reforms once they’re enacted, and continue refining policies to prevent wrongful convictions.
Only then can policymakers fully assess the remaining possibility that an innocent person might still be executed and whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in the jurisdiction.
However, if state legislators choose to consider a bill repealing the death penalty (rather than imposing a moratorium) the Innocence Project will support repeal legislation because it may be the only way to stop executions while the causes of wrongful convictions are remedied.
We understand and respect that many people and organizations have differing views about a number of issues surrounding the death penalty, including the morality of its use, the relative costs associated with it, and whether it has a deterrent effect.
Our focus is on the risk of executing innocent people — and the need to reform the system to prevent all wrongful convictions, including those in capital cases.
The Innocence Project’s moratorium position is rooted in data about the causes of wrongful convictions and irrefutable proof that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to die.
VIDEO: Thirty-seven men who were exonerated by DNA testing (4 min, Texas Monthly)
VIDEO: Interview of exonerated death-row inmate and activist Darby Tillis (11 min, Russian Times)
The innocent and the death penalty
Seventeen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. They were convicted in 11 states and served a combined 209 years in prison – including 187 years on death row – for crimes they didn’t commit.
Kirk Bloodsworth served eight years in Maryland prison – including two years on death row – for a murder and rape he didn’t commit, before he was exonerated in 1993.
Rolando Cruz, and his co-defendant Alejandro Hernandez, served more than 10 years on Illinois death row for a murder they didn’t commit before DNA testing proved both men innocent in 1995.
Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams were sentenced to death in the infamous Ford Heights Four case in Illinois for a pair of 1978 murders they didn’t commit. Jimerson was cleared in 1995 after a decade on death row and Williams served more than 17 years on death row before he was freed in 1996.
Robert Miller spent nine years on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder and rape he didn’t commit before he was cleared by DNA testing in 1998.
Ron Williamson spent a decade on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project proved him innocent in 1999. His co-defendant, Dennis Fritz, was sentenced to life and spent 11 years in prison before DNA cleared him as well.
Ronald Jones, an Innocence Project client, served a decade on Illinois death row for a murder and rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release in 1999.
Earl Washington, a Virginia man with limited mental capacity, was sentenced to death after he allegedly confessed to committing a 1982 murder he didn’t commit. He served a decade on death row, once coming within nine days of execution before receiving a stay. He would serve a total of 17 years behind bars before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project cleared him in 2000.
Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on Florida’s death row after serving 14 years for a murder and rape he didn’t commit. He was cleared by DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project 11 months after his death.
Charles Irvin Fain served more than 17 years on death row in Idaho for a murder and rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence in 2001.
Ray Krone served a decade in Arizona prison – including four years on death row – for a murder and rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence in 2002.
Nicholas Yarris served more than 21 years on Pennsylvania’s death row before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release in 2003.
Ryan Matthews served five years on Louisiana’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit before he was exonerated by DNA testing in 2004. His co-defendant, Travis Hayes, was sentenced to life in prison and served eight years before he was cleared in 2007.
Curtis McCarty served 21 years in Oklahoma prison – including nearly 18 years on death row – for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA tests secured by the Innocence Project led to his exoneration in 2007. He was convicted twice and sentenced to death three times based on forensic misconduct.
Kennedy Brewer, an Innocence Project client, served 15 years behind bars – including seven years on death row – for a murder and sexual assault he didn’t commit before DNA testing from 2001 finally led to his exoneration in 2008.
Michael Blair served 13 years on death row for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by his lawyers at the Innocence Project proved his innocence and led to his exoneration in 2008.
Sources: Innocence Project (Details provided on each miscarriage of justice) | Texas Monthly, YouTube | Russian Times, YouTube | Haiti Chery