Turn Up The Heat For A Moratorium

100th Innocent Prisoner Released From Death Row

Ray Krone (right) celebrates with his lawyer.
By: Elizabeth Terzakis

"He deserves an apology from us, that’s for sure."

That was how Rick Romley, the district attorney for Maricopa County, Arizona, reacted to Ray Krone’s release from prison earlier this month. Krone was exonerated after being incarcerated for 10 years -- three of them on death row -- for a crime he did not commit.

Romley went on to claim that the system that sentenced an innocent man to death and kept him locked up for a decade is "the best in the world." The facts indicate otherwise. Krone’s release brings to 100 the number of death row inmates who have been exonerated and released since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Over the same span of time, some 770 men and women have been executed in the U.S.

In other words, for every seven death row prisoners sent to the death chamber, one has been found innocent and released. This raises the outrageous specter of an unknown number of other innocent men and women who are sitting on death row, waiting to die for crimes they did not commit.

Krone is the second person to be exonerated from death row in 2002. Earlier this year, Juan Melendez was released from Florida’s death row when it was determined that prosecutors in his original trial withheld critical evidence. Melendez spent nearly two decades on death row.

This is not the first time that the states of Florida and Arizona have been forced to release inmates from death row because of innocence. Arizona has admitted to this shameful error six times in the past, while Florida leads the nation in wrongful convictions -- with 22 innocents released since 1976, according to USA Today.

Florida also has one of the highest rates of execution in the country, carrying out 51 since the reinstitution of the death penalty. As Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta told the Baltimore Sun, a high rate of executions and a high rate of error go hand in hand. "[T]he more you seek the death penalty, the more routine it gets, the less attention and care is taken with each case," he said.

In Illinois, Republican Governor George Ryan was forced to call a moratorium on executions after 13 innocent men were released from death row.

These numbers are alarming, but numbers can’t convey the horror of executing the innocent. Former Florida death row inmate Sonia Jacobs was exonerated in 1992, when it was discovered that the chief prosecution witness in her case had given contradictory statements. Her husband, Jesse Tafero, convicted on the same evidence, was not so lucky; he was murdered by state execution in 1990. According to witnesses, six-inch flames erupted from his head, and three jolts of electricity were required to stop his breathing.

Krone’s exoneration, followed closely by the release of the Illinois commission’s report on the death penalty, has led to a call for a re-examination of the death penalty in states from Maryland to California. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) marked the occasion of Krone’s release to push legislators to pass the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act, while Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) promoted the Innocence Protection Act, which would provide new safeguards in capital cases, including DNA testing and competent lawyers.

While this attention is welcome, activists should see this as a moment to turn up the heat, not sit back and wait for politicians to act. The Texecutioner, former governor of death, George W. Bush, is in the White House, leading a frontal assault on civil liberties. This is no time to be complacent. Grassroots activism has been crucial to exposing not only innocence on death row, but the arbitrariness and racism of the death penalty system.

The last national moratorium was in 1972 and halted all executions -- but it didn’t last long. Today more than ever, we must organize for a moratorium now -- and abolition next.