‘When human life is on the line’

    It’s heartening to learn that Connecticut has now abolished capital punishment – the fifth state to renounce government-sanctioned death in the past five years, and the 17th state overall – because the incidents of injustice have become too visible to ignore, even in America, which in its devotion to the death penalty is virtually alone in the civilized western world.

    Connecticut joins New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and New Mexico in this latest abolition round – in contrast to, say, Pennsylvania, which currently has 211 inmates on death row. And while the rationales for repeal have varied somewhat (it’s cheaper for the taxpayer to have the convicts serve life sentences than to finance their endless legal appeals), the big deal-breaker is the issue that retired high court Justice John Paul Stevens highlighted in 2010: “The risk that the state may put an actually innocent person to death.”Of late, we’ve seen too many risky examples. In Georgia last September, a man named Troy Davis was executed for the killing of an off-duty cop, despite the fact that seven of nine prosecution witnesses had later recanted their testimonies, that there was no DNA or other physical evidence, that there was strong evidence of police misconduct during the investigation (namely, the coercing of witnesses), and that the witness who first fingered Davis later confessed to the murder. That’s supposed to be what we call “reasonable doubt.” One Davis supporter said publicly that “the evidence in this case…is inadequate to the task of convincingly establishing either Davis’ guilt or his innocence.” That supporter was retired FBI director William Sessions, a tough-on-crime guy appointed by Ronald Reagan.Texas, which leads the league in executions (a stat that prompted cheering at an ’11 Republican debate), has predictably served up a few doozies of its own. Take Claude Jones, for instance. He was dispatched to the great beyond in 2000 for killing a store clerk. He had been convicted on the basis of a hair fragment; his lawyers had wanted to run a DNA test on the fragment, but the Texas courts said no. Finally, in 2010, the hair fragment was tested…and guess what, it wasn’t Jones’ hair. Too late for Jones, though. And, in another Texas case, it was too late for Cameron Todd Willingham. He was put to death in 2004 for torching his house and killing his kids. Long after trial, an independent fire investigator named Gerald Hurst took a close look at the case and concluded that Willingham had been wrongly convicted on the basis of what Hurst called “junk science,” that in fact the fire had actually been triggered by a faulty space heater or bad wiring. Years passed, until Gov. Rick Perry cut off the probe and ordered that Willingham be given the lethal needle.Which brings us to our latest example – arguably the most egregious, and certainly the most thoroughly researched.On Monday night, seven legal eagles at Columbia University posted the results of a 30-month investigation into the trial and execution of a mildly mentally-challenged Texan named Carlos DeLuna. DeLuna was convicted for fatally knifing a gas station clerk. The Columbia investigators (building on a 2006 probe by the Chicago Tribune) concluded that DeLuna was tried and executed “on the thinnest of evidence” with “no corroborating forensics” – no blood at the Corpus Cristi murder scene, no fingerprints, no hair, no fibers, no DNA, nothing. There was one shaky eyewitness who said years later that he wasn’t more than 70 percent sure of his initial ID. Moreover, when DeLuna needed legal representation, the trial judge appointed a defense lawyer who had zero criminal trial experience, and the police and prosecutors failed to share with this lawyer any and all evidence that pointed to DeLuna’s innocence – most notably, the fact that they had identified (with the help of the Corpus Cristi community) a far more likely murder suspect. That was a guy named Carlos Hernandez who was boasting to all listeners that he’d knifed the store clerk and that hapless DeLuna had gone down for it.You can read it all for yourself, on the interactive website sponsored by the Columbia University Human Rights Review. Naturally, there will be fools who see the word “Columbia” and reflexively belch about “liberal” “bias.” But it’s a lot easier to simply jerk the knee than it is to probe a case for 30 months, assemble the supporting material and put it all online (cop records, court records, videotaped interviews, crime-scene photos), and provide the reader with 3,434 footnotes.Granted, few Americans will care about what happened to a mentally-challenged Latino who was executed 23 years ago. Roughly 60 percent still support execution (although the percentage has dipped a bit), and we’re ranked fifth in the world on the execution tally board – trailing our death penalty friends: China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. (That list should tell you something.)But capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 based in part on its assumption that death row inmates would belong there, that they would be convicted at trial beyond a reasonable doubt. Dream on. To contest that naive assumption, it’s not even necessary to cite Davis, Jones, Willingham, and DeLuna. It’s sufficient to simply point out that, in recent years, roughly 140 denizens of death row have been exonerated long after trial – thanks largely to the advent of DNA testing.But the fate of DeLuna, for those who care to study it, is arguably the most scandalous of all. At minimum it’s fresh ammo in the state-by-state fight to renounce capital punishment. As the Columbia investigators write in their epilogue, Americans should “let their own consciences dictate how much tolerance for doubt is allowable when human life is on the line.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.