"Catalog of the failure of the justice system"

Interview with the author of "The Death Game"


Mike Gray is an author and documentary filmmaker, whose movies include American Revolution II and The Murder of Fred Hampton. He has written The Death Game: Capital Punishment and the Luck of the Draw, a new book about the injustices of the death penalty system. Gray talked to Marlene Martin about his new book.

You say in the book that some of these prosecutors are literally getting away with murder in our name. Could you explain what you mean by that?

I had written an earlier book called Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess, and How We Can Get Out. It's an analysis of the drug war, and I spent five years researching and writing that book.

Basically, what I discovered in that book was the extent to which the drug war has corrupted the criminal justice system. Which is fairly shocking and horrifying, but I really had no idea that the corruption went all the way to the top. And in The Death Game, it becomes quite apparent that it does go to the top. This is a catalog of failure of the criminal justice system in the United States.

It's caused by a fundamental structural problem. We've created a system where the frontline troops in the war on crime -- the cop on the beat -- must routinely lie under oath on the witness stand in order to make the system function. That's fundamentally corrosive, and I didn't realize the extent to which that was the case until I got into The Death Game, and I realized that the corruption is just all-pervasive and horrifying.

The real root problem as far as prosecutors are concerned is that there are tremendous rewards for getting a conviction -- and there are no consequences whatsoever if it turns out you got that conviction through lying, cheating, suborning witnesses, perjury, covering up evidence, hiding exculpatory evidence, burying the confessions of the real killers, etc.

When they find that out, you get a slap on the wrist, and you go on to your next case. Whereas, if you're successful in convicting one of these notorious criminals, there's a good chance that you may one day be governor or -- who knows -- even president.

They have to have a conviction, and if there's not a suitable candidate available, then they have to find one. And once they find one, then they have to assemble evidence to prove that this guy did it. And after they've accomplished this, when the real killer shows up, or the real confession shows up, or the cops show up with some real evidence against somebody else, that evidence has to be deep-sixed.

What message do you hope readers take away from your book?

I think it's important that they understand that they can have the death penalty if they want, but that they're going to be routinely executing innocent people. That's the message.

The death penalty doesn't accomplish anything. All of its accomplishments are negative, including the so-called closure for the victims of the crime, which is the one reason that everybody's trumpeting the death penalty.

In the case of Timothy McVeigh, [who was convicted of bombing the Oklahoma City Federal Building], the classic example on this question of closure, there's Bud Welch, the Texaco dealer in Oklahoma City, who was supposed to have lunch with his daughter that day. She was working in the Murro federal building, and he was on his way downtown to meet her when the building blew up.

This destroyed Bud Welch. He became a heavy drinker, he was consumed with rage, and obviously, if he had been able to get his hands on Timothy McVeigh, there would have been no trial.

But his rage became so all-consuming that he was sitting down there looking at the spot where the building was, when he got to thinking about his daughter. And he thought, she wouldn't want me to be destroying myself with hatred. She was a kind, loving, gentle, wonderful young woman. This is nuts. And Welch then joined a group called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, and he began speaking out all over the country against the death penalty.

You don't spend much time on activism in your book. What role do you see for that?

Absent the activists, all these people who were exonerated would be dead. It's that simple. They weren't saved by the criminal justice system. They were saved by college students and reporters who refused to give up, and little old ladies who said, "Wait a minute." If we really had some muscle behind this, and we really looked into these cases, God knows what we would find, because so far, we've just scratched the surface.