There was an excellent article in The Atlantic magazine on the likelihood of executing innocent people in the USA, and the terrible flaws in our justice system.  It's full of outrage, and the author makes many chilling points:

Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, in 1976, more than eighty death-row inmates have been freed from prison, their convictions overturned by evidence of innocence. That may not sound like many, given the huge U.S. prison population, but it is more than one percent of the 6,000 men and women who were sentenced to death in that same period, and equal to almost 15 percent of those actually executed.

Probably many more of the death-row inmates are actually innocent, but don't have the strong evidence of innocence required to vacate their convictions. 

A 1996 Justice Department report, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial, found that in 8,048 rape and rape-and-murder cases referred to the FBI crime lab from 1988 to mid-1995, a staggering 2,012 of the primary suspects were exonerated owing to DNA evidence alone.

There is no logical reason to think that police-error rates in criminal investigations lacking DNA evidence are any better than the 25 percent error rate in those where it is present.

And the public defenders do a shockingly cursory job of defending people in capital cases, where there a risk they might be sentenced to death. The money available for the public defenders is terribly inadequate.
So the death penalty specifically involves the victimization of people who have little money.  It's also applied in a way that victimizes black people. 
The article makes good suggestions for reforming the system.

I've watched a lot of Dateline crime shows on Youtube.  Many of them are about people who were found guilty of murder with little evidence, and the show doesn't convince me the person is guilty, and they probably didn't leave out major evidence.

So I ask myself, how common is this?  Dateline is looking for interesting shows, and it's interesting when someone who could well be innocent is convicted.  So there's a bias. 

But reading the Atlantic article makes me think wrongful convictions are much more common than we would like to believe.  And also, executions of people who are innocent. Edward Earl Johnson was a young black man convicted of murder who was executed in 1987.  Many legal observers believe he was innocent, and the prison warden who arranged for his execution, believed him to be innocent.  There's a BBC documentary about the last 2 weeks of his life. 

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Yes, I think that article mentioned that prosecutors are almost immune from being prosecuted themselves, even for very bad abuse of office.  They do it because they're elected officials and lots of convictions look good to the voters. 

They probably tell themselves the defendant is guilty and rationalize things like fabricating evidence as a way of getting the jury to do the "right thing". 

The jury system is just nuts.  People get their lives decided because of 12 strangers who were practically brought in off the street - people who have lots of prejudices, people who don't know the defendant, people who may be given wrong info by witnesses.  Jury verdicts are very capricious - sometimes astonishingly voting "not guilty", as in the OJ case - sometimes voting guilty when there's no good evidence.  It's not too surprising that prosecutors want to game things to ensure the "right" result, because it's not fair even if they don't. 

Public sentiment influences these things a lot.  A lot of people have no sympathy for the prisoners convicted of murder, not realizing that actually, shockingly many convicts were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, didn't have the money to hire a good lawyer, etc.   DNA technology has improved the accuracy of the system a lot - but sometimes people get convicted purely on circumstantial evidence. 

Someone told me once that even if a person is innocent of a crime, they probably aren't really innocent, because they're involved with criminals.  This isn't true, and it's equivalent to judging people guilty simply because of their social class or their circumstances. 

There's a huge amount of class prejudice around. 

While I cannot say that I am against the death penalty, I can say there certainly seems to be a great abuse of it, complete with lying prosecutors and extremely dubious evidence. The wife and I watch lots of factual TV shows along this line and convictions often do not make sense, hinging on the political career of involved law enforcement, and juries that often seem to believe the person tried would have to automatically be guilty or they would not be on trial. This is appalling!

                                              Here's what I would like to see:

1.  Trials based entirely on forensic evidence and DNA whenever possible.

2.  All evidence presented and not withheld.

3.  Prosecutors who willingly withhold evidence should be prosecuted themselves.

For all of those in prison right now and on death row, if the forensics and DNA says they did not do the crime, guess what -- you have the wrong person in prison! They should be released and compensated.

The wife and I actually watched a real case where 2 men were convicted of murdering a man in a parking lot. Both men had been drinking so they had their time frames off a bit, but the police did intensive interrogation literally telling the men that they were at the crime scene and murdered this man. There was plenty of forensics that would contradict the police, but this was never produced in court. Eyewitness testamony was used instead. The men got life in prison. At the end of the program one man was free after 20 years because the eyewitness admitted he was told to lie. Cops and prosecutors were still saying both men were gulity and continued to cover their asses, but the contradictory forensic evidence was never used or reviewed.

I'm sorry. Hair, blood, DNA, finger prints, shoe and boot prints, etc. do not lie!

Hair, blood, DNA, fingerprints, shoe and boot prints might be a little simplistic. I can envision a guy murdering his boss, being careful to not leave any of that behind, but video evidence and building entrance data revealing him to be the only other person in the building when it happened. Maybe even video of him doing the crime. Depending on the circumstances, I wouldn't hesitate to convict based on other types of evidence that I cannot conceive to be ambiguous.

That said, there definitely are cases of the wrong person being convicted and sentenced to death. I am not against capital punishment, but the line has to be clear to go to that extreme.

Hair, blood, DNA, fingerprints, shoe and boot prints might be a little simplistic

In the case of Amanda and Raffaele, there was lots of evidence of the burglar Rudy Guede in the room - but no evidence of Amanda and almost no evidence of Raffaele - only the probably contaminated Bra Clasp.  And it was a tiny room with a lot of blood spilled in it.  It would be practically impossible for multiple people to participate in the murder and only one to leave physical traces - which is one of the strongest arguments that they couldn't have done it.  Not possible to do such a selective cleanup.  One of the signs of a cleanup is when something is unnaturally clean.  And there was no evidence of a cleanup either. 

But yes, you have to look at the whole picture - with standards of evidence to exclude cases cobbled up out of nothing. 

Eyewitness testimony is very unreliable.  People can be persuaded to change their memory after the fact.  Or persuade themselves.  Yet people tend to find eyewitness testimony convincing. 

I'm aware that police interrogation goes on for hours on end and the police play games with you to get that confession. It is only fitting that this procedure be video taped and used at the trial as necessary, even if you have to view it in its entirety. This should be the law.

Edward Earl Johnson was a young black man convicted of murder who was executed in 1987.  Many legal observers believe he was innocent, and the prison warden who arranged for his execution, believed him to be innocent.  There's a BBC documentary about the last 2 weeks of his life.

This documentary is a terrible thing to watch - it really brings it home to you, what it is to execute an innocent person, because you see this guy and hear what he has to say.  Very depressing. 

Sometimes I keep a news RSS on death penalty, exonerations, wrongful convictions.  Then I become so demoralized I cant read it and give up.  

The US, and other countries, have imperfect systems of trial and punishment.  That's to be expected, but I really become overwhelmed at how much, and how many places, the so-called justice system is used for scapegoating, political gain, career advancement, self aggrandizement, elimination of competition, propaganda, bullying members of unwanted or disliked groups, convenience of the politicians and judicial system.

We are not as bad as many countries, and not as good as many others.  I wish we could be better.

The process of law is quite rigid, authoritarian, arbitrary. 

Perhaps if it worked more like science, where decisions and thoughts are changed on the basis of evidence and criticism from numerous groups, it would work better.  It's interesting to ask how it might be designed differently, to work more like science. 

I suffer no illusion that any system of jurisprudence can be perfect, but ours in the US today is so imperfect that I think that the death penalty is unjustifiable.  It's a problem that many of the powerful actors are political figures with points to be made with voters and appointers who have no connection to or information about specific cases.  And it's a problem that public defenders of the poor are so often inadequate -- this is a problem even greater in cases not involving capital offenses.

From "Best of all possible worlds" by Kris Kristofferson:

I said if that's against the law

Then tell me why I never saw

A man locked in that jail of yours

That wasn't just as low-down poor as me.

In a fair number of places in the US, that's the conclusion others have come to  as well.

Currently in Tennessee, authorities are wanting to do s house cleaning of death row and execute an unprecedented # of convicts.  It's strange to me that "justice" requires such a sudden housecleaning.  

Apparently,some of our reduction in executions is due to a shortage of death drugs, caused by European countries' opposition to US death penalty.  I don't know why the drugs can't be made in the USA.   The linked article states   "In April of this year, the number of people on death row declined to 3,108 inmates, compared to 3,170 at the same time last year."  I had no idea there were over 3,000 on death row in the USA.

When I read that article in the Atlantic suggesting that the rate of wrongful convictions may be much higher than you might guess - even for people on death row - and watching that BBC documentary about the execution of Edward Earl Johnson, who seems to have been not only innocent but a nice person - the death penalty looks not just insupportable - but actually an atrocity:  the state-sanctioned systematic murder of disadvantaged people, some of whom are innocent

People who are condemned to death may be innocent of the crime for which they were sentenced to death, yet still vicious characters.  For example there's Larry Swearingen, currently on death row for the murder of a young woman.  He's a compulsive liar who came up with many different stories about what happened.  He's been violent against women in the past. Any woman should stay away from this handsome but vicious dude. 

Yet he seems likely innocent of the murder, because he was in jail when the young woman's body was discovered, and several experts say that for several different reasons, her body doesn't seem like she had been dead long enough for him to have done the crime.  Swearingen has been within a day of execution several times, but the execution was put off because of evidence of innocence. 

And the prosecutor is now arguing against doing some DNA testing that Swearingen asked for, to prove his innocence. 

Edward Earl Johnson seems like he was innocent in general, that's why the documentary about his execution was so painful to watch.  He signed a false confession to the crime because, he says, the police threatened him with death.  The false confession was a big part of why he was convicted. 

Dateline publicizes a lot of wrongful convictions.  Hopefully by making wrongful convictions into entertainment, they are raising public awareness of how many innocent people are languishing in prison in the USA. 


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