The Real Risk of Executing the Innocent
Since 1973, 138 people – including 2 in Tennessee – have been freed after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. That’s more than one innocent person exonerated for every executions
Despite the best intentions, we can’t be right 100% of the time
- DNA exonerations have been a window into all the things that can go wrong in a murder case. They have revealed that cases are often riddled with problems like mistaken eyewitnesses, incompetent lawyers, shoddy forensics, unreliable jailhouse snitches, and coerced confessions.
- DNA by itself cannot solve these problems. DNA evidence exists in less than 15% of criminal cases – far fewer than one would think from watching TV crime shows like CSI.
- Contrary to popular belief, the appeals process is not designed to catch many of these mistakes. These exonerations came only because of the extraordinary efforts of people working outside the system – pro bono lawyers, family members, even students.
- Innocent people have spent decades on death row, or come within hours of execution, before the truth came out. Cutting appeals will only increase the risk that an innocent person will be executed.
The wrong man: Stories of Tennessee’s broken system
- Michael McCormick was sentenced to death in Chattanooga in 1985. His conviction was based largely on hair evidence found in the murder victims’ car that the FBI said matched McCormick. After spending 20 years on death row, DNA testing ultimately proved that hair did not belong to McCormick and he became the nation’s 125th death row exonoreee.
- Paul House was released in 2009 after spending nearly 23 years on death row – even though evidence indicating his innocence (including DNA) had been uncovered in the 1990’s. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “had the jury heard all conflicting testimony—it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have lacked a reasonable doubt.” In other words, House would not be found guilty in a fair trial with all the evidence introduced. House’s case was finally thrown out by and all charges were dropped making House the132nd exonoree nationwide and the second in Tennessee.
- Gussie Vann is the 139th death row inmate, and the third in Tennessee, exonerated in the U.S. since 1973, after his 1994 conviction and death sentence for the sexual assault and murder of his eight-year-old daughter, Necia, were thrown out and all charges dismissed. Necia’s death was originally reported as an accidental hanging. Vann was awarded a new trial in 2008, following a state post-conviction review, after Judge Donald P. Harris ruled that Vann’s defense attorneys failed to hire forensic experts to challenge the state’s claims of sexual abuse. Forensic experts later testified that there were no signs of sexual abuse in the autopsy report. Judge Harris wrote that this failure led to Vann being convicted on “inaccurate, exaggerated and speculative medical testimony.
Factors leading to wrongful convictions include:
- Inadequate defense
- Police and Prosecutorial misconduct
- Perjured testimony and mistaken eyewitness testimony
- Tainted jailhouse testimony
- Suppression of mitigating evidence and misinterpretation of evidence
- Death qualified juries
- Lack of or unreliable eyewitness testimony