Friday, 5 September 2008

Sizing up wrongful execution risk

State panel on capital punishment listens to man who was freed from death row

By Julie Bykowicz
8:26 PM EDT, September 5, 2008

In the last of its four public hearings, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment explored Friday the risk of innocent people being executed - calling upon of one its members to tell the story of his own wrongful conviction.Former Maryland death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth, part of the 23-member commission appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, told members about the post-conviction DNA tests that exonerated him in 1993 and eventually pointed to the real killer.

He had served more than eight years in prison for the rape and murder of an Eastern Shore girl. Two juries convicted him, the first sentencing him to death and the second, after he won a new trial on appeal, sentencing him to life in prison."I'm living proof that Maryland gets it wrong," Bloodsworth said. Another half-dozen exonerated men, including Michael Austin, who spent 27 years in prison for murder before a re-examination of the evidence led to his freedom in 2001 and then a governor's pardon and a $1.4 million award from the state.

Also testifying Friday was Barry Scheck, director of an Innocence Project in New York. Similar advocacy organizations exist in Maryland and elsewhere. Considered the father of post-conviction DNA testing, Scheck said DNA has helped win freedom for 220 wrongfully convicted people. Death penalty opponents say 129 of them had been sentenced to death.

"More innocent people are being convicted than anyone ever thought," Scheck said.

He told the commission that while reasonable people may disagree on the morality of the death penalty, no one wants innocent people to be executed.

After their testimony, two prosecutors on the panel, Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and Matthew Campbell, a former deputy state's attorney for Montgomery and Howard counties, pressed Scheck on whether advances in DNA testing in recent years significantly diminish the chance of wrongful conviction, particularly in capital cases.

Campbell relayed to the commission testimony of another prosecutor who said that, with today's forensic science, it is unlikely that an innocent man could be executed.

"I couldn't disagree more," Scheck said. He warned that post-conviction DNA testing is "not a panacea" that can right all wrongful convictions.

Other witnesses Friday included Jennifer Thompson, a North Carolina woman who said her description of the man who raped her led to the wrong man's conviction; Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who told commission members about costs associated with capital cases; and five others. More than a dozen members of the public also signed up to testify.

The commission, led by Benjamin R. Civiletti, a former U.S. attorney general who served under President Jimmy Carter, must submit its final report to the governor in December. O'Malley opposes capital punishment, but his efforts to outlaw it have failed in the General Assembly.

Related links

No comments: