The Innocent are Being Sentenced to Death and Government Officials are to Blame
By Nicole Kinbarovsky, TCADP Advocacy Fellow
The Death Penalty Information Center’s (DPIC) new Special Report: The Innocence Epidemic provides in-depth analysis regarding the facts of wrongful convictions in capital cases. The additional 11 individuals added to the list, for a new total of 185 exonerations nationwide, updates a key death penalty stat: for every eight people executed in the United States, one individual sentenced to death is exonerated. Even more disturbing, data demonstrates how the criminal legal system has weaponized the death penalty against innocent citizens, with targeted abuses aimed particularly at the impoverished, Black, and Latinx community members.
The data on wrongful convictions exposes consistent trends in government misconduct. Executive Director of the Innocence Project, Christina Swarns, states, “[DPIC’s] findings are alarming, but not surprising. Racism pervades every stage of the criminal legal system and sends far too many innocent people of color to prison and to the execution chamber. The good news is that more Americans are now taking this issue seriously.”
With support for the death penalty waning in Texas, will mounting evidence of official misconduct or deeply flawed trial and jury practices significantly impact the death penalty’s future?
Read: DPIC’s Special Report: The Innocence Epidemic
The death penalty is not used only for the “worst of the worst.”
In Texas, the death penalty is supposed to be reserved only for the “worst of the worst” and those who pose a “future danger.” Yet as DPIC’s report explains, there is an epidemic within our criminal legal system in which innocent individuals are sentenced to death and killed despite their innocence.
With 16 exonerees, Texas places third on the list of most exonerations after Florida and Illinois. Out of the 11 additional exonerees listed in the report, three are from Texas:
Justin Cruz was convicted in 1984 based on false testimony and no physical evidence. He was acquitted in 1985 by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals (CCA) decision Cruz v. State. The case includes official misconduct, perjury or false accusations, and insufficient evidence.
Claude Wilkerson’s 1979 conviction rested on a confession that violated many of his constitutional rights. Wilkerson was acquitted in 1983 by the CCA decision Wilkerson v. State. The case includes official misconduct and false confession.
Bonnie Erwin had charges dismissed in 1989 after the 1987 CCA decision Erwin v. State, which states the trial prosecution failed to seek testimony from a witness who corroborated Erwin’s story and implicated his co-defendant. The case includes official misconduct and perjury or false accusations.
These three Texas exonerees join 13 others: Alfred Brown (2015), Anthony Graves (2010), Robert Springsteen (2009), Michael Toney (2009), Michael Blair (2008), Ernest Willis (2004), Ricardo Guerra (1997), Muneer Deeb (1992), Federico Macias (1993), John Skelton (1990), Clarence Brandley (1990), Randall Adams (1989), and Vernon McManus (1987). Learn more about Texas exonerees here.
As explained in DPIC’s report, the number of exonerations correlates to the intensity by which a jurisdiction pursues a death penalty conviction. A 2000 study by Columbia University Law School titled, A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, illuminates a strong positive relationship between the aggressive procurement of a death sentence and prejudicial constitutional misconduct by state officials.
Texans are aware of the risks related to the death penalty. When surveyed about the possibility of sentencing and executing an innocent person, 98% acknowledged the risk (see the UT Texas Politics Project’s data here). However, this acceptance of error assumes proper due process and fair treatment under the law. Alarmingly, in almost 70% of the exonerations listed, the driving factors were abusive and deliberate misconduct by prosecutors and the police.
Prosecutorial and police misconduct is often intentional.
Beyond human error, 69.2% of exonerations involve government officials’ malicious intent to secure a death sentence and squash legitimate accusations of misconduct. Perjury or false accusations were present in 67.6% of the cases and regularly overlap with official misconduct, such as withholding information, incentivizing witness testimony, threatening co-defendants to take a plea, and eliciting false testimony by co-defendants in exchange for a lesser sentence. Out of 187 total exonerations, more than 75% had multiple causes, pointing to the depth of errors present in the death penalty. In Texas, 87.5% of exonerations include more than one cause in their wrongful conviction.
A select number of counties represent the majority of wrongful convictions.
DPIC’s report identifies 27 counties that represent over half of the total wrongful convictions. In Texas, three counties make up more than half of the current death row population: Harris (75), Dallas (19), and Tarrant (16). Harris County also leads the state with four death row exonerations: Alfred Brown (2015); Anthony Graves (2010); Vernon McManus (1987); and Ricardo Guerra (1997). Of these, official misconduct and perjury were present in three, consistent with DPIC’s overall findings.
Harris County has a notorious reputation for prejudicial constitutional errors. People of color represent 20 of the last 21 death sentences. Harris County accounts for 40% of the 33 individuals removed from death row over the last five years due to sentence reductions or deaths in custody. The data points further to Columbia’s findings related to the aggressive pursuit of the death penalty and wrongful convictions.
Read: TCADP’s annual report, Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2020: The Year in Review
Black and Latinx individuals experience greater abuse than their White counterparts.
For Black and Latinx individuals accused of committing capital crimes, the chances of being wrongfully convicted increase substantially, mirroring the well-documented racism found in capital cases. Their exonerations also take longer to secure. Nationwide, 11 out of the last 12 exonerees that took thirty+ years to be exonerated were Black. Official misconduct was found in 58.2% of White cases, compared to 78.7% in Black cases and 68.8% of Latinx cases. Similar to official misconduct, perjury and false accusations are more prevalent in Black exonerations with 70.7% and an astounding 93.8% in Latinx exonerations.
Read: DPIC’s report, Enduring Injustice Race and the Death Penalty
DNA evidence and testing are critical for exonerations but hard to obtain.
The power of an exoneration based on DNA evidence is complex: it proves innocence and negates the evidence used for a conviction. For these reasons and despite public perception, only 28 of the 187 total exonerations (15.1%) are due to the DNA evidence. It is important to note that Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence in 1993, was released after 57 individuals were already exonerated. However, since 1993 the numbers have continued to rise. Over the past decade, ten individuals have been exonerated with DNA evidence, five in 2020 alone.
When DNA evidence is prohibited or absent, the blameless are executed. Despite this understanding, government officials still actively deny those on death row the opportunity to test DNA to prove their innocence. Official misconduct was found in over 85% of all cases involving a DNA exoneration.
Two contrasting examples used by the report are Pennsylvania and Florida. Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Larry Krasner, has exonerated 18 individuals through the implementation of a post-conviction review by the newly installed Conviction Integrity Unit. In comparison, Florida has denied DNA testing in over seventy cases in 2018. Nineteen were denied any DNA testing, with nine others blocked from additional DNA testing. Florida currently houses one of the largest death rows in the country. It is no surprise Florida tops the list with 30 exonerations.
Claude Jones’s death is emblematic of systemic negligence and misconduct in the Texas criminal legal system.
The experience of Claude Jones is another telling example used in DPIC’s report. In 2000, Texas executed Jones, a likely innocent man who was convicted based on one piece of physical evidence, a strand of hair placing him at the scene.
Posthumously, herculean efforts were enacted to acquire the proper DNA testing. In 2007, seven years past his death, the Innocence Project, Texas Observer, the Innocence Project of Texas, and the Texas Innocence Network filed a lawsuit to gain DNA testing on the strand of hair. Success would come in 2010 when test results substantiated Jones’s claim of innocence. The strand of hair used to convict Jones did not match him.
While the new DNA results could not prevent Jones from being executed, the verdict brings great relief to his loved ones. Jones’s son Duane Jones had this to say, “Knowing that these DNA results support his innocence means so much to me, my son in the military and the rest of my family. I hope these results will serve as a wake-up call to everyone that serious problems exist in the criminal justice system that must be fixed if our society is to continue using the death penalty.”
The State of Texas has not acknowledged the execution of Jones as wrongful. As found in the majority of DNA-related wrongful convictions, the contradicting findings of Jones’s DNA testing reveal crucial errors in the State’s case to convict. Additionally, Jones was failed by a system entrusted to execute only the “worst of the worst.” Jones’s request for a stay in order to allow for DNA testing was ultimately denied by Governor George Bush shortly before his execution. As summarized by Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocent Project, “Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”
There are many more innocent people on death row.
Trends in prosecutorial and police misconduct remain consistent throughout the modern history of the death penalty. Researchers state the current data represent conservative figures, with many more innocent lives suffering such incredible injustice. Missing from the lists are the myriad of others who are factually innocent but remain on death row or those already executed. Contributing factors include popular strategies used by prosecutors and the police like plea deals for conviction and for release. The report demonstrates how government officials are often successful in preventing facts related to wrongful convictions from public and judicial review. Often, these tactics are to avoid liability and future compensation.
The facts presented in DPIC’s Special Report: The Innocence Epidemic paint a grim reality of the death penalty in the United States and raise important questions. How can a criminal legal system riddled with errors and severe official misconduct be trusted with the devastating punishment of death? What does it mean for our society when the institutions responsible for protecting citizens look away when they themselves are the predators?