OP-ED: "DNA: A Test for Justice"

In a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, former FBI Director William Sessions (pictured) underscored the importance of reliable FBI forensic analysis in convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent. Sessions provided the example of Willie Jerome Manning, who received a last-minute stay of execution in Mississippi in order to allow time to conduct testing on DNA evidence that could exonerate him. Manning was convicted in 1994 based on FBI testimony that has since been invalidated by the U.S. Department of Justice. Sessions also urged state prosecutors and judges to work with defense counsel in cases where the FBI provided potentially unreliable evidence. Sessions concluded, “When evidence used to convict an individual is discovered to be unreliable, justice requires that we review that case, no matter how long ago the conviction occurred.” Read full op-ed below.

EDITORIALS: "Gov. Scott Should Veto Bill that Speed Up Death Penalty Punishments"

A June 3 editorial in the Sun Sentinel called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto the Timely Justice Act, a bill passed by the legislature earlier this year that would accelerate executions. The bill requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a Supreme Court review, with an execution to follow within 180 days. According to the editorial, flaws in the system, evidenced by death row exonerations, should be sufficient reason to reject a bill that would speed up the death penalty process in the state. The law would give wrongfully convicted inmates approximately eight months to prove their innocence before facing execution. The editorial highlighted the case of former Florida death row inmate Seth Penalver, who spent a dozen years on death row before this conviction was overturned last year. Another inmate, Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin, recently presented DNA evidence that could set him free, seven years after his conviction. The editors concluded, “If the Timely Justice Act were already law, he would not be alive to fight for his own justice.” Twenty four wrongfully convicted inmates have been released from death row in Florida since the mid-1970s, more than any other state in the country.  Read full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: "End the Death Penalty in Kansas and Missouri"

The Kansas City Star recently called for an end to the death penalty in Kansas and Missouri. The editors wrote, "The arc of history is bending toward justice when it comes to the death penalty, and there’s no good reason Missouri and Kansas should lag behind and continue to be on the wrong side of both history and justice." The high costs of implementing capital punishment and the risks of wrongful executions were among the  reasons cited for doing away with the punishment. With respect to innocence, the paper stated, "The Innocence Project reports that, through the use of DNA evidence, 18 death row prisoners so far have been exonerated. They already had served a total of 229 years behind bars in 11 different states. That should never happen. Nor should execution of the innocent, but the only way to be positive it doesn’t is to ban capital punishment." Kansas has not had a execution since it reinstated the death penalty in 1994. The editorial concluded, “Kansas and Missouri should follow Maryland’s recent example and become the 19th and 20th states to adopt a sane and civilized approach to this matter.” Read full editorial below.

U.S. Court of Appeals Allows Re-Trial of Justin Wolfe Despite State's Misconduct

On May 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled (2-1) that the federal District Court overstepped its authority when it barred any further prosecution of Justin Wolfe. The Circuit Court upheld the lower court's order requiring Virginia to either retry Wolfe or release him, and it further held that Virginia failed to comply with that order. In 2002, Wolfe was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to death in the murder of a drug dealer in Virginia. His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill the victim because of an outstanding debt. In 2010, Barber testified that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with the murder. The conviction was overturned by the District Court because the state had withheld crucial evidence from Wolfe's lawyers. The Court of Appeals had upheld that ruling earlier. In the current ruling, Judge Thacker, writing in dissent, would have barred any re-prosecution: “The misconduct of the Original Prosecuting Team has tainted this case to the extent that Wolfe’s due process rights are all but obliterated….The Commonwealth’s misconduct has continued far too long, and the cumulative misconduct permeating this case has tainted it in such a way that it is doubtful Wolfe will receive a fair and just trial. Enough is enough.”

Texas Enacts "Michael Morton Act" Intended to Reduce Wrongful Convictions

On May 16, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a bill known as the "Michael Morton Act" that will require prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of the evidence they disclose. The Act is named for Michael Morton (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1987. He was exonerated in 2011 after DNA evidence revealed that someone else had murdered his wife. Morton's lawyers discovered that the original prosecutor had withheld evidence that could have proven Morton's innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brady v. Maryland (1963) already requires prosecutors to hand over to defendants any evidence that is "material either to guilt or to punishment," but Texas' new law requires disclosure of all police reports and witness statements, regardless of whether the evidence is material to guilt or punishment. Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, said, "This is a great day for fairness in Texas. The Michael Morton Act will reduce wrongful convictions; it is something we can all be very proud of." Twelve inmates have been exonerated and freed from Texas' death row since 1973.

NEW VOICES: Oregon Leaders Speak Out About the Death Penalty

At a recent event at Willamette University in Oregon, various state leaders in the fields of law and criminal justice spoke critically about the state's death penalty. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz (pictured) said the death penalty was "bad public policy," almost never resulting in an execution. He spoke of having defended a murderer sentenced to death in 1988. Twenty-five years later, the Justice noted, he is now retired after a full career in the law, while the inmate is still in the midst of his appeals on death row. Noting the $28 million spent annually on the death penalty, Justice De Muniz said, “The death penalty is getting a ‘pass’ from legislative scrutiny, when looking for ways to trim Oregon’s budget to fund starving schools and public safety.” The former Superintendent of the State Penitentiary, Frank Thompson, who presided over the last executions in the state, called the current system a “failed public policy.” Thompson said that he was concerned about his staff, who had the responsibility of carrying out executions, and about the risk that some innocent people have been executed in the U.S. Retired Supreme Court Justice Edwin Peterson also announced at the sold-out event that he would begin speaking out publicly against the state’s death penalty.

Former Death Row Inmates Are Ambassadors of Change

A recent article in The Nation by David Love, the Director of Witness to Innocence, underscored the important role of people like Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham (pictured), who were once on death row and now have been freed. These and many of the 140 other people who have been exonerated from death row have traveled the country, speaking to legislators, students, church groups, and the general public about the risks of executions. Bloodsworth's efforts in Maryland have received wide attention. Shujaa Graham, also a Maryland resident, was exonerated from death row in California after the state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because the prosecutor had excluded African Americans from his jury. He was later acquitted in a re-trial. Both Bloodsworth and Graham recently attended the signing of the death-penalty repeal bill in Maryland.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: DNA Results Indicate Death Row Inmate May Be Innocent

Lawyers for Clemente Javier Aguirre recently presented the results of DNA testing to a Florida court, casting serious doubt on his guilt.  Aguirre was sentenced to death for the murder of two women in 2006. Although the DNA evidence was available at the time of his trial, Aguirre's trial lawyer never requested testing of the crime-scene evidence. Aguirre's current lawyers said that DNA results from dozens of items did not reveal Aguirre’s blood at the crime scene. Instead, the tests found blood belonging to the daughter of one of the victims, a woman with a history of mental illnessm who may be responsible for the killings. Nina Morrison, a lawyer at the Innocence Project who is assisting with Aguirre’s case said, “It’s the rare case in which you have DNA in multiple places at the scene of a homicide showing the blood of someone other than a convicted person.”