The number of death penalty sentences and executions have declined dramatically in the past 20 years, according to a recent report from the Death Penalty Information Center. In part, perhaps, the result of increasing awareness of how easy it is for a jury to wrongfully convict someone; 156 men and women have been exonerated from death row. Improved technology, specifically DNA evidence, has played a large part in overturning wrongful convictions, including inmates who were on death row waiting to be killed.
Although I don’t typically handle criminal defense cases, I have witnessed first-hand how a jury could potentially convict an innocent person. During law school, I worked as a law clerk for a judge in Orange County. At that time, I was given an opportunity to sit through jury trials, some criminal and some civil. I recall one criminal jury trial where I believed the accused was probably innocent—and yet I watched him be taken away in handcuffs after his conviction to serve a thirty year sentence. I’ll never forget thinking that he could very well be an innocent man, and that the same thing happens in courtrooms all over the country every single day.
Our justice system is unparalleled, and we are fortunate to have many Constitutional protections that others around the world do not have. Unfortunately, despite all the safeguards, juries sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes defense attorneys are completely ineffective; overwhelmed by their case load or inexperience. Too often, they are outmatched by talented prosecutors with significantly fewer cases, more money, and the aura of authority that comes from having the backing of the State or Federal Government.
And, too, sometimes the evidence is inherently misleading. Sometimes, the police investigators get it wrong; they are human and can make mistakes. Most of those mistakes are innocent ones; some, unfortunately, are probably not.
Because of all that, I’m not a big fan of the death penalty, especially the way it is currently set up. If we are, collectively, going to put someone to death, I believe the evidence against that person should be indisputable. At the very least, it’s a conversation we need to have before another innocent person is placed on death row.