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Innocence Remains a Concern in 2019 Death Penalty Cases

Even as the number of executions across the country continues to dwindle, the risk of executing innocent people remains a serious problem. This year, two men were exonerated from death row, two men were executed despite significant doubts about their guilt, and two men with strong innocence claims narrowly escaped execution. These cases demonstrate the procedural barriers to presenting new evidence and the lack of safeguards in our legal system.

 

Charles Ray Finch and Clifford Williams, Jr. were both exonerated in 2019 more than 40 years after being wrongfully convicted, bringing the total number of death row exonerations to 166. Williams was sentenced to death in Florida despite his jury’s recommendation of a life sentence, a practice that was later declared unconstitutional. Prosecutors only began reinvestigating his case in 2018, when a new State Attorney created a Conviction Integrity Unit. Finch was also sentenced under an unconstitutional law in North Carolina, which imposed a mandatory death sentence for certain crimes. Had that law not been overturned shortly after Finch’s conviction, he likely would have been executed before evidence of police misconduct and manipulation of eyewitnesses came to light in his case. We are all too familiar with these issues that led to their wrongful convictions.

 

Domineque Ray was executed in Alabama in February. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, and in 2017, his attorneys discovered for the first time that the key prosecution witness was experiencing delusions and hallucinations due to schizophrenia at the time he accused and testified against Ray. The Supreme Court declined to review Ray’s argument that his due process rights were violated by the prosecution’s suppression of evidence related to the witness’ mental illness.

 

Larry Swearingen was executed in Texas in August on the basis of flawed forensic evidence. The “smoking gun” in the case—a piece of pantyhose that allegedly matched the pantyhose used to strangle the victim—was not discovered in two initial searches of Swearingen’s home, and was “found” only after the victim’s body had been discovered with a pantyhose ligature around her neck. The lab technician who testified at trial that the two pieces were halves of a single pair of pantyhose had initially found “no physical match” between them. Eight forensic experts contradicted trial testimony on the timing of the victim’s death, concluding that the victim had been killed while Swearingen was in police custody and could not have committed the killing.

 

James Dailey in Florida and Rodney Reed in Texas were both scheduled for execution in 2019, but were granted stays just days before their execution dates. Dailey received a stay on procedural grounds, but it may allow time for consideration of evidence that discredits the testimony used to convict him. Dailey’s co-defendant, Jack Pearcy, has admitted on at least four occasions that he alone killed the victim. Jailhouse informants who testified against Dailey were given undisclosed benefits in exchange for their testimony, and one was revealed as a serial perjurer. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Reed’s execution and ordered the trial court to review claims that prosecutors presented false testimony and suppressed evidence of Reed’s innocence. Reed’s case had garnered an unprecedented outpouring of support from celebrities, politicians, and legal groups.

 

These cases are not aberrations. Since 1973, 166 people have been exonerated from death row. Our legal system can never guarantee 100% accuracy, so we cannot trust it with matters of life and death.

 

Dave Keaton was the first person to be exonerated from death row in 1973 and yet, 46 years later, the death penalty still has the same issues of sentencing innocent people to death and disproportionately being applied to marginalized groups. The death penalty is beyond fixing and the only way to stop these same issues from continuing is to eliminate capital punishment.

 

Read the entire report from DPIC here.

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