The Tragedy of Innocence

December 18th, 2009

By Tom Carter

The Innocent ManHow can it be tragic to be innocent?  Perhaps when someone has been wrongly convicted of a crime and spends many years in prison, sometimes on death row, only to be freed when it’s found that he didn’t commit the crime.

I recently read John Grisham’s The Innocent Man.  This book was a departure for Grisham, who normally writes fiction about lawyers and the legal system.  It recounts the case of Ron Williamson, who along with his friend Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a young woman.  Williamson was sentenced to death, Fritz to life in prison. 

The convictions of Williamson and Fritz resulted from incompetence, venality, sloppiness, prejudice, and egotism on the part of the Ada, Oklahoma police, prosecutor, and courts.  Oklahoma state investigators and criminalists helped along the way.  Despite the emergence of clear evidence of their innocence, based on DNA testing, it took a lot of hard work by a conscientious federal judge and his staff to finally have their freedom restored.

Williamson and Fritz were convicted on the basis of ludicrous “dream” confessions, the clearly false testimony of jailhouse snitches, other perjured testimony, and invalid testimony by an “expert” about hairs found at the scene of the crime.  In addition, the prosecutor withheld exculpatory information from the defense, and the judge ruled that evidence indicating their innocence could not be presented during the trial.  Beyond all that, Williamson was not mentally competent to stand trial, an issue that his court-appointed lawyer inexplicably failed to pursue.

When finally set free, Williamson had spent over 11 years on death row, at one point coming within five days of execution.

It would be one thing if these cases were rare, but they aren’t.  When Williamson moved onto Oklahoma’s death row, he became one of five inmates condemned to death who would later be proven innocent.  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 139 people sentenced to death in 26 states have been found to be innocent.  Of course, that begs the question, how many innocent people have been executed?  The simple fact is we’ll never know.

Many exonerations of death row inmates have come through the work of the Innocence Project, which relies on DNA testing to prove innocence.  It’s chilling to read the long list of people, some of them sentenced to death, who have been proven innocent by DNA test results.  But we have to remember that DNA isn’t always available at crime scenes, and people wrongly convicted in such cases have little chance of ever proving their innocence.

Oklahoma and many of its citizens are ardent supporters of the death penalty, executing more people per capita that any other state, including Texas and Virginia.  It was the first state to adopt lethal injection, and many Oklahomans were disappointed that their state wasn’t the first to actually use that “modern” method of killing their fellow citizens.  Grisham details the entire technical process of execution in Oklahoma; reading that dispassionate explanation of the process is deeply unsettling.

But it isn’t just Oklahoma.  Every state that executes people and the federal government have almost certainly killed innocent people in the past.  How long can a supposedly civilized society tolerate this moral outrage?

I’m strongly opposed to the death penalty, as I made clear in an earlier article.  Until it doesn’t matter how much money a defendant has and the criminal justice system never makes mistakes, we will continue to convict and sometimes execute innocent people.  Even if the system were error-free and the identity and means of defendants weren’t issues, it would remain a mystery how anyone could consider it morally right for the government to methodically kill its citizens.

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7 Responses to “The Tragedy of Innocence”

  1. Brianna |

    How can the government justify killing members of its citizenry? Well if someone is a serial rapist or murderer, I personally think that’s pretty easy. Quite aside from any considerations of morality or justice, what happens if that person manages to escape prison? As for considerations of morality and justice, what happens to justice for the innocent when we extend such baseless and undeserved compassion to the guilty?

    The only valid ground upon which to oppose the death penalty is the other issue you brought up, the fact that you might accidentally kill an innocent man. Because of this, I think that the death penalty should only be used in cases where a) you are absolutely sure that the accused is guilty, i.e. smoking gun cases, and b) even the slightest risk that this person might manage to escape imprisonment or fool a parole board into letting him walk out would be intolerable.

    For example, there’s another Grisham novel, A Time To Kill, where two adults rape a little girl and leave her for dead. Why? No reason. Because it was fun, I guess. Would they do it again, given the chance? Probably. Did they feel any remorse or guilt? Not that I could tell from the novel. Are you honestly saying that people like that deserve any mercy or compassion from our justice system? And if so, how do you justify your decision in light of what happened to that little girl?

  2. Tom |

    I’ll accept that you are comfortable giving the government the right to kill you, under terms and conditions they set and at a time of their chosing. You didn’t mean yourself? Oh, I see…. But if they can do it to one, can’t they do it to another? All they have to do is convict you of a crime and do away with you before you have a chance to prove that you’re innocent. I’m not really being sarcastic because this is exactly what happens to some people, although all don’t get executed before they can prove they didn’t do the crime. Just some of them; the rest spend years and years in prison.

    As to the question of morality, that’s up to each of us to decide, I suppose. However, public policy can’t be made on the basis of the emotions aroused by specific heinous cases or the famous question, “What if he killed your (fill in the blank)?” You don’t reach a balance in morality by killing killers, robbing robbers, etc. And the ultimate moral question, really, is how many innocents do we execute among all those who are guilty before we cross the line of what’s acceptable? One in 10; one in 100; one in 1,000…?

    I’ve frequently heard the argument that the death penalty is acceptable as long as “you are absolutely sure that the accused is guilty.” But that’s what the criminal justice system is already set up to do, supposedly. Look at all the checks and balances, the safety valves worked into the system (with variations state-by-state). Death-penalty qualified juries, special requirements for prosecutors to meet before seeking the death penalty, special requirements for representation, special penalty hearings, numerous automatic appeals after conviction, etc. And innocent people are still convicted and sentenced to death. I’d be interested to see the justice system designed and operated by human beings that never makes mistakes. I would still be against the death penalty on moral and philosophical grounds, but, reality being what it is, I won’t ever have to use that as my sole argument.

  3. d |

    I agree with you,Brianna,to an extent.Of course,if it were me,I’d feel different.I do,however want child rapist and killers to be put to death,just to save us so much money,if for no other reason.I could live with being mistakenly put to death,because my God would know I was innocent.I too,am afraid these inhuman child killers,and torturers of women,will escape.An example of that happened here in my area.The guy raped children and pretended to be an invalid,so while being moved,he overcame the unsuspecting guards.He had help from a stupid woman guard.He was free long enough to do harm,he had already stabbed his wife and was found near her home,thank goodness. I digress,he needed killing,if anyone did.I hate the death penalty,but are we supposed to feed,house and cloth these evil doers for ever?Some folks just need killing and most religions agree,eye for eye and all.If it were my child,you know the rest of that story.

  4. Brianna |

    Well actually yes, if I started walking around killing people, then chances are I would deserve to die (there are crimes of passion and accidents, but really, most first degree murderers do deserve to die). Since the state is the entity that is supposed to protect our rights and mete out justice to criminals, it would then be the state’s job to kill me. Once a person starts to deprive others of their rights, he loses any claim to rights that he has himself, and there are some crimes, some people you just don’t take chances with. If there are any doubts in the evidence (and I do mean any), you can set the sentence to life imprisonment, but if you’ve got irrefutable, smoking-gun type evidence, then chances of a screw-up in such a case would be pretty darn slim.

    Mistakes would still occasionally be made. We’re human, and humans are fallible. But you can’t refuse to act out of fear of failure in the justice system, any more than you can refuse to act out of fear of failure anywhere else.

  5. Tom |

    I didn’t word that previous comment very well. The point I was making, or trying to make, was that if we agree to the death penalty, we have to accept that any one of us could be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

    If we “refuse to act out of fear of failure in the justice system,” where the death penalty is concerned, that’s not like any other circumstance.

    One of the difficulties with this particular discussion is that those who oppose the death penalty are often seen as “soft on crime.” Some may be, but I am not. People who commit heinous crimes should be arrested, tried swiftly, and sentenced to appropriate terms in prison. That includes life without parole in appropriate cases. For me personally, that would be worse than a death sentence.

    On a related subject, we also need serious prison reform. The government should control its prisons, not the thugs and gangs among the prisoners. I believe that when we send someone to prison, we shouldn’t be sending them into a hell of unbelievable abuse and violence. That truly is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

  6. Brianna |

    I agree that life in prison is simpler in the sense that it doesn’t automatically get tied up for years in court and when you remember that mistakes can be made. I also agree that it is in many ways worse than a simple death sentence. That is why, if there is any uncertainty in a case, for anything less than the most heinous of crimes, I would prefer to simply sentence them to life imprisonment and have done with it. Not because they don’t deserve to die (in my opinion, most of them do), but because I think the living and the innocent are better off with the alternate sentence.

    However, there are also some people out there with whom you simply do not want to take the chance of then escaping, no matter how slim. That would basically mean serial rapists, murderers and arsonists for whom there was smoking-gun evidence of guilt. These are pretty much the only people for whom I would advocate the death sentence, because I think they’re the only people for whom that risk trade-off you mentioned is really worth it.

  7. bambu |

    Innocent people all over America shafted in the justice system.
    Read it all and weep for the unjustly persecuted.
    INNOCENT people have been executed [premeditated, cold-blooded killing by the state in death chambers].
    Sabrina Butler was one such young woman:
    ____________Sabrina Butler was on death row, moving up the line to the death chamber…and didn’t even know she could appeal.
    Poor, black, overweight teen mom, innocent, waiting to die.
    A miracle happened, an ‘unbelievebale fluke’ saw her life saved…as she was granted a retrial because some lawyers screamed loudly enough.
    The evidence [or lack thereof] spoke for itself…and she was exonerated.

    While waiting on death row, she ‘fell in love’ with one of the nice black male guards who was kind to her.
    Upon her release she went back to the jail to see him.
    They are now married and have children.

    Female death row exoneree Sabrina Butler shares story with students

    Butler said she was convicted under a felonious child abuse statute passed in Mississippi 23 days after her incarceration. She believes her age at the time of her conviction and the nature of the crime she was accused of sealed her guilt in the minds of jurors.

    “They already knew what they were going to do before they even saw me. I didn’t really have a chance,” Butler said.

    Since her exoneration Butler has returned to the Mississippi town she was convicted in, remarried and now focuses on overcoming her lost years and raising her three children. Her baby son is also buried there.

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