Archive for October, 2010
The colloquial phrase innocent until proven guilty is thrown around a lot in this country. In the case of Anthony Graves, the converse seems more appropriate when after 18 years and a death sentence the state of Texas declared him an innocent man. Convicted in 1994, the State’s case against Graves relied almost entirely on the the testimony of his supposed accomplice, Robert Earl Carter, who recanted his story shortly before his own execution in 2000. In spite of Carter’s recantation, Graves remained on death row until a team of journalism students from the University of St. Thomas began investigating the circumstances of his conviction. With evidence gathered by these journalism students and the help of the Innocence Project at the University of Houston, Graves conviction was overturned in 2006 by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court granted Graves a new trial and he returned to the county jail.
Prior to the commencement of Graves’ retrial, the District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss all charges against him. In commenting on the case, Assistant District Attorney, Kelly Siegler, said “After months of investigation and talking to every witness who’s ever been involved in this case, and people who’ve never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder. This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn’t make the case anymore. He is an innocent man.” Upon his release, Anthony Graves became the 139 death row exoneree since 1973.
For more information on Anthony Graves’ case, please click here.
In this election season, a time of partisan posturing with a hyper focus of the media on the ideological divides in our nation, I was recently treated to an unusually thoughtful and substantive discussion on what has been historically seen as a “controversial” issue: the death penalty. On Friday, October 22nd I was one of about 50 people who attended a death penalty forum in Nashville sponsored by First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University Law School.
The forum’s moderator, Vanderbilt Law Professor, Christopher Slobogin, played the role of a governor considering the adoption of a death penalty statute in his state. The distinguished panel, acting as his advisors, consisted of a number of experts in their field, including retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr.; President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Richard Land; Death Penalty Information Center Director, Richard Dieter; Nashville clergyperson and murder victim’s family member, Charles Strobel; along with representatives of the media, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, and an expert in forensic psychology.
While the discussion among the diverse panel members highlighted some of the traditional ideological dichotomies, it also provided a surprising level of consensus. The continuing racial and economic bias that plagues the administration of the death penalty system emerged as a concern for all panel members. The costs associated with implementing the death penalty and problems with the process surfaced as other reasons not to adopt a death penalty statute. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of implementing the death penalty, for all panel members, was the prospect of innocent people being executed. Panelists, such as Dr. Land and Father Strobel, who come to this issue from very different theological and philosophical perspectives, were in full agreement that if we are to have the death penalty, then we must strive for 100% accuracy. Anything less is unacceptable.
Ultimately, members of the panel more than fulfilled their duties and offered attendees a thoughtful and nuanced discussion. The panel’s willingness to engage the issues and the common ground that emerged offered this observer hope that rather than being irreparably divided on the topic of the death penalty, we might be much closer than we think.
Glenn Bernard Mann was pronounced dead at 10:30 a.m. on Friday at Nashville’s General Hospital after a battle with cancer. Glenn was 39 years old. He was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 62-year-old Annie Lou Wilson in Dyersburg, TN, in 1993.
Though inmates do sometimes get sick and die on death row prior to their execution date, Glenn’s death was a little different for me. Glenn and I grew up in the same hometown, Dyersburg, and we are–were–the exact same age. I don’t think Glenn was in my grade, though I can’t be sure. I was in school with many of Glenn’s relatives–siblings and cousins–but don’t remember him distinctly. However, my mother, a school teacher, remembers Glenn as do some of the other teachers who taught during that time.
But, everyone in Dyersburg remembers the murder. I was graduating from college the same year that this murder happened. I, a little, white girl raised by school teachers in a small West Tennessee town, did well in school, was given lots of opportunities to excel, and ultimately got a scholarship to attend Rhodes College in Memphis.
Glenn’s experience was different. Glenn, a young, black child raised in the same, small West Tennessee town, did not have the same opportunities as I had. His family didn’t have the resources mine did. He struggled in school. He ended up on drugs which led to the horrible crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced to death.
I am not trying to make excuses for Glenn. There is no excuse for the brutal rape and murder of Annie Lou Wilson. But I can’t help but think how differently everything might have turned out if Glenn had been given the same opportunities and nurture as me. Two children born the same year in the same town with such very different stories and yet, still connected.
Today I remember two lives that ended tragically and too soon. And, I am grateful that God’s mercy is so much bigger than all of the trauma that we inflict on each other or the tragedy we endure. I truly hope that all the lives that were intertwined with Annie Lou and Glenn will experience the peace that passes all understanding both now and in the days ahead.
Photo by Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs
Executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for murdering his three young children, Cameron Todd Willingham and the evidence responsible for his death sentence will once again be put on trial tonight. The PBS documentary “Death by Fire” presents troubling aspects surrounding Willingham’s conviction, including the use of dated forensic science by the state’s expert witnesses. This ‘expert testimony’ is so archaic that the Texas Forensic Commission claims it does not hold “any basis in modern fire science.” This report, coupled with District Judge Charles Baird’s recent decision to review Willingham’s conviction, lends increasing credibility to the notion that in their haste to kill Cameron Todd Willingham, the state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.
For more information on Cameron Todd Willingham and the PBS documentary click here.
Michael McCormick spent 20 years on Tennessee’s death row fighting his wrongful conviction and death sentence until a jury found him not guilty in a new trial in 2007.
Paul House remained on Tennessee’s death row for nearly 23 years, the latter part of those years confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, until his conviction and sentence were finally thrown out and all charges against him dropped in 2009. Neither man has received compensation from the state of Tennessee.
These men spent the majority of their adult lives locked up–unable to work to support their families, to marry, to travel, to spend holidays at home with those that they loved. And even though the new evidence demonstrating their wrongful convictions was enough for the U.S. Supreme Court and a Federal District Court Judge in the House case, and for a new jury in the McCormick case, the Governor must now exonerate them in order for them to receive compensation.
There is not enough money in the world to begin to address the grievous injustice that occurs when a person is wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death–not only the injustice done to the convicted but to the victim’s family who must face the fact that their loved one’s killer may never be called to account.
I know that the legal process around these issues is very complex, I get that. But what more can Paul and Michael do? How do you travel back in time and prove you are innocent? Our system doesn’t work that way, or at least it is not supposed to. You are innocent until proven guilty. The proof of their guilt has now been discredited, by DNA no less.
It is the function of the state to protect society from people who commit violent crime, and I am grateful for all those individuals out there who are working to ensure my safety and the safety of those I love. I know it is a difficult job. However, the state also needs to be able to admit and remedy mistakes, just like individuals citizens of the state are expected to. It is time for the state of Tennessee to admit that in these cases, mistakes were made, and two men spent decades locked up awaiting death for crimes the evidence now demonstrates they didn’t commit.
No amount of money can make up for those lost years…no amount. But the state should at least make an effort.
Photo of Joyce and Paul House (center) by James Staub
In the middle of the current economic downturn, law enforcement officials across the country are now facing huge budget cuts that will dramatically effect the resources they need to fight crime. Budget reductions are causing vacancies in police departments to go unfilled while at the same time crime rates in several states are rising. In a recent survey of 500 police chiefs across the country, the police chiefs rank the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction. They do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, and they rate it as one of the most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime. In a year of severe financial crisis, states are spending tens of millions of dollars on the death penalty that law enforcement officers admit more cost-effective ways to use taxpayers’ money are on programs such as expaned training for police officers, programs to control drug and alcohol abuse along with more neighborhood watch programs.
To read more go to: Police fear crime increase as recession saps forces
Executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for murdering his three young children, Cameron Todd Willingham and the evidence responsible for his death sentence will once again be put on trial October 19th. The PBS documentary “Death by Fire” presents troubling aspects surrounding Willingham’s conviction, including the use of dated forensic science by the state’s expert witnesses. This ‘expert testimony’ is so archaic that the Texas Forensic Commission claims it does not hold “any basis in modern fire science.” This report, coupled with District Judge Charles Baird’s recent decision to review Willingham’s conviction, lends increasing credibility to the notion that in their haste to kill Cameron Todd Willingham, the state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.
For more information on Cameron Todd Willingham and the PBS documentary click here.
While many would be quick to assign opposition to the death penalty to bleeding-heart liberals and religious pacifists, prominent conservatives are now joining the chorus of voices speaking out against the death penalty. Evidence of this can be found in the recent issue of The Richmond Times-Dispatch,in which Richard Viguerie, considered the founder of the modern conservative movement, and Brent Bozell, president and founder of the conserative Media Research Center, provide a framework for conservative opposition to the death penalty. In their op-ed piece, the two men cite biblical prinicples, recent exonerations, and the safety provided by maximum security prisons as reasons for consertives to call for an end to the death penalty.
To read this article, click here.
Picture provided by Free Photos and Clipart.