Since 1973, at least 142 people have walked off our nation’s death rows after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit.1 That’s more than one innocent person exonerated for every ten who’ve been executed. Hundreds more have been exonerated from long prison sentences as a result of advances in DNA testing.
Wrongful convictions like these mean victims’ families suffer while the real killers remain at large and tax dollars are wasted. These cases represent much that is failing in our justice system.
What we have learned about innocence
- Hundreds of exonerations have given us a window into all of the things that can go wrong in a criminal case. They offer irrefutable evidence of the system’s flaws.
- Exonerations have revealed that murder cases are often riddled with problems, including mistaken eyewitnesses, incompetent lawyers, shoddy forensics, unreliable jailhouse snitches, and coerced confessions.
- DNA by itself cannot solve these problems – it can only tell us just how bad they are. And DNA evidence exists in only about 10% of criminal cases – far fewer than one would think from watch-ing TV crime shows like CSI.
- In those few cases where DNA evidence is available, access to the DNA database or to new testing can be extremely limited.
Montana Case In Point: Jimmy Ray Bromgard
Jimmy Ray Bromgard spent over 14 years in prison in Montana for attacking a young girl in Billings. He was convicted on two things: the victim’s identification, even though she said she was only 65% sure, and hair evidence, largely considered to be junk science. There were no finger-prints or other physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene. His trial lawyer did so little work on the case that he didn’t even give an opening statement. He conducted no investigation, hired no forensics experts to debunk the hair evidence, didn’t prepare a closing statement, and filed no appeal.
Jimmy is one of the lucky ones. The Innocence Project later took his case and a group of students located new evidence to be tested. DNA tests – often not available – proved his innocence and he was released in 2002, after losing a decade and a half of his life. Jimmy was only 18 when he was sent to prison. The problems in his case – wrong eyewitness identification, incompetent lawyers, and faulty forensics – are common problems in the criminal justice system. Had the young girl been murdered, Jimmy may well have been sentenced to die and even executed before his innocence came to light.
Despite the best intentions, we can’t be right 100% of the time
- The risk of executing an innocent person is not limited to those cases where lawyers sleep through trials. Despite the very best efforts of police, prosecutors, judges, juries, witnesses, and defense attorneys, mistakes can and will happen. In a capital case, even one small mistake can be deadly.
- Contrary to popular belief, the appeals process is not designed to catch 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 up to 33 years awaiting execution, or come within hours of execution, before the truth came to light. Any effort to streamline the cumbersome death penalty process or cut appeals will only increase the risk that an innocent person will be executed.
- One of most comprehensive state death penalty studies in the nation recommended 85 reforms that were essential to decrease the risk of wrongful executions.2 Not a single death penalty state has even a majority of those reforms in place.
Exonerations don’t mean the system is “working.”
Many exonerations have come as a result of the extraordinary efforts of people outside the regular channels – pro bono lawyers, students, family, and friends working above and beyond the call of duty – and a few good Samaritans inside the system who pursued “hunches” outside their purview.
No system is error proof. It’s time to substitute the death penalty with life without parole – a swift and severe punishment that guarantees Montana will never risk executing an innocent person. No other reform can make that guarantee.
1. Innocence list maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.
2. The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment was a two-year study that recommended 85 reforms to the state’s death penalty in 2002. Several states have compared their systems to the 85 reforms and found virtually none of those reforms were in place. http://www.idoc.state.il.us/ccp/ccp/reports/index.html