Looking Back: Exposing The Death Penalty, Part 1

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Jeffrey Deskovic Speaking in Davis last year at the Annual Vanguard Event

by Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

In my effort to raise awareness about the problem of wrongful convictions, as well as seeking legislative changes to make the criminal justice system more accurate, I have always included abolishing the death penalty amongst the reforms I advocate. My reasoning is simple: any system of justice that results in wrongful convictions will, if it has a death penalty as a sentencing option, inevitably execute innocent people. This past March 17 New Mexico legislatively abolished the death penalty citing, amongst other issues, that very real possibility. In this three-part series I will review likely wrongful executions, near-misses, ongoing cases of potential wrongful execution, systemic deficiencies, along with one case example wherein innocent people were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death before being cleared. And then, I will look at modern-day recognition that the death penalty risks the execution of innocent people.

Likely Wrongful Executions

There are a variety of cases wherein it is very likely that innocent people have been executed, as established by facts, circumstances, and statements from people involved, in one way or another, which can show a reasonable basis upon which to believe that the executed individual was likely innocent. These case summaries are taken from the Death Penalty Information Center.

Ruben Cantu

A two-part investigative series by the Houston Chronicle casts serious doubt on the guilt of a Texas man who was executed in 1993. Ruben Cantu had persistently proclaimed his innocence and was only 17 when he was charged with capital murder for the shooting death of a San Antonio man during an attempted robbery. Now, the prosecutor and the jury forewoman have expressed doubts about the case.

Moreover, both a key eyewitness in the state’s case against Cantu, and Cantu’s co-defendant, have come forward to say that Texas executed an innocent man. Juan Moreno, who was wounded during the attempted robbery and was a key eyewitness in the case against Cantu, now says that it was not Cantu who shot him and that he only identified Cantu as the shooter because he felt pressured, and was afraid of the authorities.

Moreno said that he twice told police that Cantu was not his assailant, but that the authorities continued to pressure him to identify Cantu as the shooter after Cantu was involved in an unrelated wounding of a police officer. “The police were sure it was (Cantu) because he had hurt a police officer. They told me they were certain it was him, and that’s why I testified. . . . That was bad to blame someone that was not there,” Moreno told the Chronicle.

In addition, David Garza, Cantu’s co-defendant during his 1985 trial, recently signed a sworn affidavit saying that he allowed Cantu to be accused and executed even though he wasn’t with him on the night of the killing. Garza stated, “Part of me died when he died. You’ve got a 17-year-old who went to his grave for something he did not do. Texas murdered an innocent person.”

Furthermore, Sam D. Millsap, Jr., the Bexar County District Attorney who charged Cantu with capital murder, said he never should have sought the death penalty in a case based on testimony from an eyewitness who identified a suspect only after police showed him Cantu’s photo three separate times. And, Miriam Ward, forewoman of the jury that convicted Cantu, said the jury’s decision was the best they could do based on the information presented during the trial. She noted, “With a little extra work, a little extra effort, maybe we’d have gotten the right information. The bottom line is, an innocent person was put to death for it. We all have our finger in that.”

Larry Griffin

A year-long investigation by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has uncovered evidence that Larry Griffin may have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed by the State of Missouri on June 21, 1995. Griffin maintained his innocence until his death, and investigators say his case is the strongest demonstration yet of an execution of an innocent man. The report notes that a man injured in the same drive-by shooting that claimed the life of Quintin Moss says Griffin was not involved in the crime, and the first police officer on the scene has given a new account that undermines the trial testimony of the only witness who identified Griffin as the murderer.

Based on its findings, the NAACP has supplied the prosecution with the names of three men it suspects committed the crime, and all three of the suspects are currently in jail for other murders. Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce said she has reopened the investigation and will conduct a comprehensive review of the case over the next few months. “There is no real doubt that we have an innocent person. If we could go to trial on this case, if there was a forum where we could take this to trial, we would win hands down,” stated University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who supervised the investigation into Griffin’s case.

Joseph O’Dell

New DNA blood evidence has thrown considerable doubt on the murder and rape conviction of O’Dell. In reviewing his case in 1991, three Supreme Court Justices said they had doubts about O’Dell’s guilt and whether he should have been allowed to represent himself. Without the blood evidence, there is little linking O’Dell to the crime. In September, 1996, the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated his death sentence and upheld his conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review O’Dell’s claims of innocence and held that its decision regarding juries being told about the alternative sentence of life-without-parole was not retroactive to his case. O’Dell asked the state to conduct DNA tests on other pieces of evidence to demonstrate his innocence but was refused.

David Spence

Spence was charged with murdering three teenagers in 1982. He was allegedly hired by a convenience store owner to kill another girl, and killed these victims by mistake. The convenience store owner, Muneer Deeb, was originally convicted and sentenced to death, but then was acquitted at a re-trial. The police lieutenant who supervised the investigation of Spence, Marvin Horton, later concluded: “I do not think David Spence committed this crime.”

Ramon Salinas, the homicide detective who actually conducted the investigation, said: “My opinion is that David Spence was innocent. Nothing from the investigation ever led us to any evidence that he was involved.” No physical evidence connected Spence to the crime. The case against Spence was pursued by a zealous narcotics cop who relied on testimony of prison inmates who were granted favors in return for testimony.

Leo Jones

Jones was convicted of murdering a police officer in Jacksonville, Florida, and was executed. Jones signed a confession after several hours of police interrogation, but he later claimed the confession was coerced. In the mid-1980s, the policeman who arrested Jones and the detective who took his confession were forced out of uniform for ethical violations. The policeman was later identified by a fellow officer as an “enforcer” who had used torture. Many witnesses came forward pointing to another suspect in the case.

Gary Graham

On June 23, 2000, Gary Graham was executed in Texas, despite claims that he was innocent. Graham was 17 when he was charged with the 1981 robbery and shooting of Bobby Lambert outside a Houston supermarket. He was convicted primarily on the testimony of one witness, Bernadine Skillern, who said she saw the killer’s face for a few seconds through her car windshield, from a distance of 30-40 feet away.

Two other witnesses, who both worked at the grocery store and said they got a good look at the assailant, said Graham was not the killer, but were never interviewed by Graham’s court-appointed attorney, Ronald Mock, and were not called to testify at trial. Three of the jurors who voted to convict Graham signed affidavits saying they would have voted differently had all of the evidence been available.

Cameron Todd Willingham

After examining evidence from the capital prosecution of Cameron Willingham, four national arson experts have concluded that the original investigation of Willingham’s case was flawed and it is possible the fire was accidental. The independent investigation, reported by the Chicago Tribune, found that prosecutors and arson investigators used arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances.

Willingham was executed earlier this year in Texas despite his consistent claims of innocence. He was convicted of murdering his three children in a 1991 house fire. Arson expert Gerald Hurst said, “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire.” Former Louisiana State University fire instructor Kendall Ryland added, “[It] made me sick to think this guy was executed based on this investigation…. They executed this guy and they’ve just got no idea – at least not scientifically – if he set the fire, or if the fire was even intentionally set.”

Willingham was convicted of capital murder after arson investigators concluded that 20 indicators of arson led them to believe that an accelerant had been used to set three separate fires inside his home. Among the only other evidence presented by prosecutors during the trial was testimony from jailhouse snitch Johnny E. Webb, a drug addict on psychiatric medication, who claimed Willingham had confessed to him in the county jail. Some of the jurors who convicted Willingham were troubled when told of the new case review. Juror Dorinda Brokofsky asked, “Did anybody know about this prior to his execution? Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life. Maybe this man was innocent.” Prior to the execution, Willingham’s defense attorneys presented expert testimony regarding the new arson investigation to the state’s highest court, as well as to Texas Governor Rick Perry. No relief was granted and Willingham was executed February 17, 2004.

Coincidentally, less than a year after Willingham’s execution, arson evidence presented by some of the same experts who had appealed for relief in Willingham’s case helped free Ernest Willis from Texas’ death row. The experts noted that the evidence in the Willingham case was nearly identical to the evidence used to exonerate Willis.

Near Misses

There have been a variety of cases where innocent people have come frighteningly close to being executed. These cases also show, clearly, how innocent people can be wrongfully convicted, sentenced to death and executed.

Kenneth Foster

Foster and several of his friends went on a crime spree in Texas in 1997. Eventually the crime spree ended, but Foster never parted company with one of his friends, Maurecio Brown. On the way home, Brown left the car to talk to a woman. An argument ensued that soon involved her boyfriend. Brown claimed that the victim reached into his jeans, which he interpreted as reaching for a gun. Brown pulled out his gun and killed the victim some 100 yards in front of the car that Foster was in.

Foster had no idea that Brown would do this and the crime was not a part of their criminal conduct; he had simply made the mistake of not parting company with him. Nonetheless, he had been sentenced to death. Based upon a groundswell of grass roots support, extensive media coverage and editorials, national and international support, Foster’s death sentence was commuted on noon of the day that he was scheduled to be executed, August 30, 2007.

Ron Williamson

Ron Williamson was wrongfully convicted of murder in Oklahoma in 1998, along with his co-defendant Dennis Fritz. Williamson received the death penalty, whereas Fritz received life in prison. The Innocence Project summarizes his case this way:

An inmate that Fritz was paired with eventually came forward and stated that Fritz had confessed to the murder. This jailhouse snitch gave a two hour taped interview revealing what Fritz had allegedly confessed to him. This confession came one day before the prosecution would have been forced to drop the charges against Fritz. Another informant testified that she had heard Williamson threaten to harm his mother as he had the victim. Williamson was also seen at the bar the night of the murder, according to a witness named Glenn Gore. Additionally, police had statements from Williamson regarding a dream he had about the crime.

Forensic testing was performed on various items of evidence. Seventeen hairs were recovered and were “matched” to both Fritz and Williamson. The semen evidence suggested that the perpetrator(s) were non-secretors, as Fritz and Williamson are. Fritz could not remember his exact whereabouts during the day of the crime due to the amount of time, five years, that had passed. DNA testing revealed that neither Fritz nor Williamson deposited the spermatozoa found in the victim. Further testing proved that none of the many hairs that were labeled “matches” belonged to them. The profile obtained from the semen evidence matched Glenn Gore. At one point, Williamson had come within 5 days of execution.

Earl Washington

Washington was arrested for murder and rape in Virginia. The Innocence Project summarizes his case this way: He had an IQ in the range of 69. Following questioning for two days, police claimed that he had confessed to five different crimes. The state dismissed the confessions of the first four because of the inconsistencies. They charged him with the fifth murder, however, despite not knowing the race of the victim, the address of the apartment where she was
killed, or that he had
raped her.

Washington also testified that Ms. Williams had been short when in fact she was 5’8”, that he had stabbed her two or three times when the victim showed thirty-eight stab wounds, and that there was no one else in the apartment when it was known that Ms. Williams’ two young children were with her in the apartment on the day of the crime.

Only on the fourth attempt at a rehearsed confession did authorities accept Washington’s statement and have it recorded in writing with Washington’s signature. He only picked out the scene of the crime after being taken there three times in one afternoon by the police, who in the end had to help him pick out Williams’ apartment. The confession proved to be the prosecution’s only evidence linking Washington to the crime.

Psychological analyses of Washington reported that, to compensate for his disability, Washington would politely defer to any authority figure with whom he came into contact. Thus, when police officers asked Washington leading questions in order to obtain a confession, he complied and offered affirmative responses in order to gain their approval. At trial, only the State’s psychologist testified, claiming that Washington was competent when his statement was given.

The prosecution’s case hinged on Washington’s statements as well as his identification of a shirt given to the police by the victim’s family six weeks after the crime. A forensic analyst conducted serology testing on evidence from the crime scene and detected a rare plasma protein. Once Washington, who does not possess the rare protein, became a suspect, an amended forensic report was prepared (without additional testing being conducted) that said testing for the rare protein was “inconclusive.”

DNA testing in 1993 proved his innocence, but his death sentence was merely commuted in 1994. It took 6 more years before he was allowed to have more sophisticated DNA testing, which ultimately resulted in his being pardoned based upon innocence. At one point, Washington came within 9 days of execution.

“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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29 thoughts on “Looking Back: Exposing The Death Penalty, Part 1”

  1. Dudley Sharp

    Looking Forward:

    For readers to have any clue, you need both sides, Here, the above article is by an anti death penalty activist.

    It’s a huge difference when you have both sides. as detailed.

    For example:

    Cameron Todd Willingham

    The first link is a full review of the case.
    Rebuttal: Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/10/cameron-todd-willingham-media-meltdown.html
    Rebuttal: The film “Trial by Fire”
    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/12/rebuttal-film-trial-by-fire.html 

    Cameron Todd Willingham Guilty
    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2017/08/cameron-todd-willingham-guilty.html

    Gary Graham – complete rebuttal of all innocent claims

    Gary Graham: HOLLYWOOD, MURDER and TEXAS
    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/11/gary-graham-hollywood-murder-and-texas.html

    many more, here:

    The “Exonerated”/”Innocent” Frauds

    71-83% Error Rate in Death Row “Innocent” Claims, Well Known Since 2000

    1)   Deception: The DPIC “Exonerated”/”Innocence” List
    (see fact checking/vetting model-use it)
    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/09/deception-dpic-exoneratedinnocence-list.html 

    2)  Death Row, “Exonerations”, Media  & Intentional Fraud  https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/06/death-row-exonerations-intentional-fraud.html 

    3)  The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Deception

    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-innocent-frauds-standard-anti-death.html

    4)  How many DNA “exonerations” are guilty?
    Section (3) within
    Death Row, “Exonerations”, Media  & Intentional Fraud  https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/06/death-row-exonerations-intentional-fraud.html

    5)  The 4.1% “Innocent” on Death Row: More Nonsense
    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-41-innocent-on-death-row.html
     

    6) The Absurdity of the “Exonerated Five”
    The very obvious frauds of the Central Park Five

    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/08/central-park-five-some-reality.html

     
    The Death Penalty/Executions Saving More Innocents

    7) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Liveshttp://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter.html 

    8) Deterrence, Death Penalties & Executionshttps://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2019/04/deterrence-death-penalties-executions.html

     

    1. Keith Olsen

      It’s a huge difference when you have both sides. as detailed.

      Thank you Mr. Sharp, we don’t often get both sides on this issue and on this blog.

      1. David Greenwald

        You write: “Thank you Mr. Sharp, we don’t often get both sides on this issue and on this blog.”

        No, we do.  Usually it’s in the form of third rate sources, right wing rags, and polemics, just as Dudley provided.  Not sure who he is, but given that he wrote an article, “Troy Davis & The Innocent Frauds of the anti death penalty lobby – Dudley Sharp” – “fraud” is pretty suggestive that this isn’t an objective observer. (He posted his article on today’s column, btw).

        There definitely wasn’t enough evidence to proclaim Davis innocent – in part because the case lacked any physical evidence – DNA, gun.  That should call into question, however, whether Davis should have been executed given the recantation of most of the witnesses and plausible claims of coercion.  But hey, we have polemics and right wing blogs that say otherwise. Why evaluate this stuff, right Keith?

        1. Dudley Sharp

          David:

          If you would like to fact check/vet/research anything or everything which I have provided and find something amiss, I will, gladly, discuss that with you right, here, for all to see.

          You ready? I am.

          How would you know that fraud is not, totally, objective? You wouldn’t. I would, because I fact check/vet/research.

          But, more than happy for you to fact check/vet/research and let us know where I was not objective.

          Ok? You ready? I am.

           

           

           

           

  2. Dudley Sharp

    David:

    If you would like to fact check/vet/research anything or everything which I have provided and find something amiss, I will, gladly, discuss that with you right, here, for all to see.

    You ready? I am.

    How would you know that fraud is not, totally, objective? You wouldn’t. I would, because I fact check/vet/research.

    But, more than happy for you to fact check/vet/research and let us know where I was not objective.

    Ok? You ready? I am.

     

     

     

     

    1. Keith Olsen

      But, more than happy for you to fact check/vet/research and let us know where I was not objective.
      Ok? You ready? I am.

      Oh, I can’t wait to hear this.  David, are you up to the challenge?

      1. Dudley Sharp

        David us just being dishonest. My citing the federal district court opinion, regarding no proof of Davis’ innocence, is hardly ” third rate sources, right wing rags, and polemics”..

        It is the top ranking of original sources,, as we all know, as David.

        Sadly, David is one of those sources who likes to say things without foundation or which they know are untrue.

        Its just a sad reminder of how horrible people can be on the internet. and they could care less about honesty and integrity.

        and he is with Vanguard, so there you have their standards.

        1. Alan Miller

          Sadly, David is one of those sources who likes to say things without foundation or which they know are untrue . . . Its just a sad reminder of how horrible people can be on the internet. and they could care less about honesty and integrity . . . and he is with Vanguard, so there you have their standards.

          That was a triple-decker burn (see 1:18) :

          Burn Compilation

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDTU0Q_07Pk

           

        2. Bill Marshall

          Perhaps true, but said as someone likely from TX, with his own axe to grind, possibly ‘recruited’ to weigh in by another regular poster… just speculation…

          Fueled by a Google search…

        3. Ron Oertel

          Bill:  Perhaps true, but said as someone likely from TX, with his own axe to grind, possibly ‘recruited’ to weigh in by another regular poster… just speculation…

          I’m going to speculate that it’s “you”.

          Fueled by a Google search…

          Self-doxing?

           

    2. David Greenwald

      Sorry. Wasn’t my article. Believe this column was originally published in 2010 or 11. I don’t have the time to go back over this case at this point. I did read through it at the time was convinced of the need to vacate the death sentence.

      1. Keith Olsen

        Even though you wrote:

         Usually it’s in the form of third rate sources, right wing rags, and polemics, just as Dudley provided.  Not sure who he is, but given that he wrote an article, “Troy Davis & The Innocent Frauds of the anti death penalty lobby – Dudley Sharp” – “fraud” is pretty suggestive that this isn’t an objective observer. 

        So you throw mud and feel he isn’t an objective observer but you refuse to refute his points in a cordial invitation to debate?

        1. David Greenwald

          Just being honest when I say I don’t have the time for a deep dive right now on a case of this sort. I stand by my comment given the title of his article and the nature of his cites.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Keith O… “objective” is a “subjective” judgement… so, painfully, I hear you, and tend to agree… with your observation, not necessarily the author…

          Naturally ‘reasonable’ to cite sources that fit into you view, and ignore cites to the contrary… it is what it is…

          Think we are seeing some ‘deflection’ by someone, other than you, in this thread…

      2. Dudley Sharp

        Bill:

        Smart comments, particularly:  “ ‘objective’ is a “subjective” judgement’ . So true, as everyone has their own perspective, one of the few things no one else can experience.

        My reviews of the cases, most often, have all sources listed, with active links, to confirm my assessment and, more importantly, allow folks to conduct their own fact checking/vetting/research, most often with the court decisions, the most objective reviews of the cases, as you will find with the Graham , Willingham, and Davis (part 2) cases.
        Jeffrey, also, left out, that in the Larrly Griffin case, the prosecutors re examination of the case, based upon the NAACP study, resulted in finding more evidence of Griffin’s guilt.

        If Jeffrey wishes to have a live debate with me, he can arrange it, I’ll happily show up (with paid expenses). Would be fun.

        My ax to grind is the dishonesty in the death penalty debate, wherein 70-83% of the “innocent” cases have no such proof.

         

         

  3. Moderator

    Reminder to participants and note to new commenters:

    Effective Feb 15 2021 there is a limitation on comments per article—five comments per article per commenter. 

     

  4. Dudley Sharp

    Moderator:

    Hopefully, you will not delete this.

    I followed your posted Comment Policy, which DOES NOT include the 5 comment restriction.

    I would have commented, very differently, had I known about that policy, but Vanguard made it impossible for me to know about it, until it was too late.

    I request a waiver of the 5 comment rule or delete all my comments and I will start again, knowing, in advance of the rule.

    That seems fair, as opposed to announcing a rule the commenters could not have known about.

    Please place that new rule into the Comment Policy.

    Thank you for your consideration.

     

     

    1. Moderator

      We have retained your extra comments on this thread but you are now done. Feel free to submit an essay on this or any topic to the Vanguard for publication.

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