Death Row Exonerees Featured on ABC's Action News
ABC Action News: In depth: Florida leads US with most exonerations from the death penalty
By: Anthony Hill
February 9, 2022
TAMPA, Fla. — When it comes to death penalty exonerations, Florida leads the nation. Now, people are debating whether or not the state should continue to put people to death.
In-depth reporter Anthony Hill spoke with people on both sides of the issue. Including a local man sentenced to death but was exonerated, a death penalty proponent, and a state senator pushing a bill to ban the death penalty for certain people.
"I kept wondering what made them think I did this. I wasn't there. Nowhere near there. They know where I was. Why do they think I'm the one who did this," said Ralph Wright.
In 2007, Wright was accused of killing his girlfriend and 15-month-old son in St. Petersburg. He's one of the 30 people exonerated from the death penalty in Florida since its reinstatement in 1976.
"Upon hearing the jury say the verdict was guilty, I sat there thinking, did I just become a convicted felon for something I didn't do," said Wright.
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, there are currently 318 inmates sitting on death row.
"I think that one of the biggest criminal justice reforms is to get rid of the death penalty. We don't need it anymore," said Kirk Bloodsworth with Witness to Innocence, an organization that is pushing for the abolition of the death penalty. "We speak at churches and civil organizations and the like."
The organization is full of death row exonerees.
"We empower our exonerees to become better leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty," said Bloodsworth.
The issue is important to Bloodsworth because he was on death row for a murder he did not commit. He was the first person in U.S. history to be exonerated through DNA evidence.
"We're not randomly killing someone, and we're not devaluing the life of the victim. The criminal justice system's main job is to protect law-abiding citizens," said Michael Rushford with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization dedicated to assuring that people found guilty of crimes receive a swift and certain punishment.
"Somebody who takes that law and just disposes of it and goes and kills a child or a pregnant woman or a police officer, that person has given up their humanity. They don't belong in a civilized society anymore," said Rushford.
As it stands right now, Florida executes criminals who are mentally ill.
"It's my contention that Florida shouldn't put to death people who are seriously mentally ill," said State Senator Jeff Brandes, who represents District 24, which comprises parts of Pinellas County. "Those with serious mental illness are the most vulnerable for wrongful conviction because they are the least able to assist in their own defense," said Allison Miller. She handled death penalty cases for the public defender's office for Pinellas and Pasco County for 13 years. She's currently running for State Attorney.
Both Brandes and Miller worked together on State Senate Bill 770, which proposes to ban the death penalty for those with severe mental illness.
"We believe that that's the right policy for the state, and I think it's the right policy that Floridians would accept," said State Senator Brandes. He said the bill has bipartisan support up in Tallahassee and, if passed, would go into effect on July 1.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the national average of veterans on death row is about 10%. "Florida is just shy of 20% of our death row is comprised of veterans," said Miller. She said many of these veterans have some service-related trauma that likely contributed to the crime they committed.
As for Wright, he was acquitted in 2017 by the Florida Supreme Court after spending eight years behind bars. "They were able to unanimously conclude that this guy didn't do it. You don't have the evidence that says this guy was anywhere near the crime scene, that he committed the crime or that he even had knowledge of it," said Wright.
Nowadays, Wright advocates for the abolition of the death penalty.
"The advocacy work for me is basically in spreading the word and getting people educated about what it is they don't know. To show why the death penalty is not advantageous or beneficial for us as a people and a society, but how there are alternatives to it that better serve us," said Wright.