Based on statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center, we know of one hundred and fifty innocent men and women who were sentenced to death in the US – they make up almost eight percent of total justice system exonerations. But despite the high occurrence of wrongful death sentences, no one has been legally exonerated after their execution. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), that does not necessarily mean that the 1,400 people put to death since 1976 were guilty, it just means that we currently lack a suitable way to investigate their innocence claims after they have been executed.
The ABA recently released a resolution advocating for legislation that would facilitate posthumous innocence investigations and allow the loved ones of wrongfully executed individuals to receive compensation from the state – compensation that several state statues currently bar.
We are increasingly aware that our justice system incarcerates people for crimes they did not commit, but we seem reluctant to shine the same critical light on cases where we have meted out the most severe punishment of death. The ABA’s resolution wants that to change, pointing out that, “Although the ABA and various jurisdictions have recognized the concern of wrongful conviction and incarceration, there has not been similar recognition of the parallel, and even more egregious, matter of wrongful execution.”
Increasing access to legal recourse after someone’s execution could help bring to light cases where the death penalty took innocent lives and denied citizens their constitutional right to due process by cutting their lives short. Beyond the one hundred and fifty exonerations that we know about today – a list that grows each year – the ABA points to several cases in which “guilt of an executed individual has been seriously questioned” and cases where exoneration came only after inmates died on death row. For example, Frank Lee Smith—a man convicted of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl but who then died of cancer on death row—was exonerated in 2000 after DNA evidence cleared him and the sole eyewitness in his case recanted.
And even though nothing could heal the wound left by a loved-one’s execution for crimes they never committed, some states block family members from receiving compensation once the execution has gone forward. For instance, Nebraska’s compensation statute (NEB. REV. STAT. ANN. §29-4604(5) (2009)) bars any settlement after the victims’ death, erasing the possibility of settlement in the case of a wrongful execution.
The kind of legislation that the ABA is calling for will not make executions just. But, it can help us expose fundamental shortcomings in our justice system, give governors an additional reason ro consider granting clemency if there is a possibility of innocence, and ultimately, it might bring us one step closer to ending this outdated and inhumane punishment once and for all.
The NCADP has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.