Death Penalty Exposed

By: Alice Kim

"I'm innocent, and I've got peace in my heart, and I'm ready to go home," Malcolm Rent Johnson told his prison chaplain. Soon after, he was executed by the state of Oklahoma. Now, eighteen months too late, evidence has been uncovered that will almost certainly clear his name, and the state of Oklahoma will have the blood of an innocent man on its hands.

At Johnson's 1982 trial, Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist testified that semen found at the murder site matched Johnson's. But a recent re-examination of the samples showed that no sperm was even present!

Gilchrist was suspended earlier this year and remains under investigation for falsifying, withholding and failing to test evidence in criminal cases.

Johnson never should have been executed. His case shows precisely why the death penalty needs to be abolished. We may never know how many other innocent people like Johnson have been executed. But we do know that horrific stories of wrongful convictions are not limited to Oklahoma.

Recently, two more innocent men, Charles Fain and Jeremy Sheets, were freed from death row in Idaho and Nebraska, respectively. Their releases bring the total number of innocent people freed from death row in the United States to 98.

After spending more than 18 years on Idaho's death row, Fain was freed when new DNA tests concluded that the hairs found on the victim didn't belong to him.

Prosecutors were forced to drop charges against Sheets in September when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that testimony used to convict him was "highly suspect" and "inherently unreliable."

The flimsy "evidence" used against Fain and Sheets is appalling. Without question, numerous others on death row never received a fair trial. And we can be sure that even more cases of innocence will be exposed.

Citing the high number of wrongful convictions, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a longtime supporter of the death penalty, publicly questioned the fairness of the death penalty in July and called the current situation "unacceptable."

All over the world and in the U.S., momentum against the death penalty has grown. In August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the U.S. to pronounce a national moratorium on executions citing "a disturbing correlation between race, both of the victim and the defendant, and the imposition of the death penalty" in America.

Moreover, several courts recently issued stays of execution. Each of these decisions has served to expose further flaws in the death penalty.

In Texas, judges stepped in and ordered a stay for Napoleon Beazley, who was only 17 years old at the time of his alleged crime.

The federal district court ordered a stay for Ohio death row inmate John W. Byrd, who chose to be executed by the electric chair over lethal injection to demonstrate the brutality of capital punishment. Byrd would have been the first to die in Ohio's electric chair in 38 years.

And the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the execution of Geraldo Valdez, a Mexican citizen, citing potential violations of international law.

Even cases that have long cried out for attention are getting a hearing. Texas death row inmate Calvin Burdine, whose lawyer actually slept in the courtroom through his defense, was finally granted a new trial this past summer.

Until recently, the tough-on-crime agenda promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike meant that executions were steadily increasing in the U.S. But as the machinery of death has come under increasing scrutiny, U.S. executions are finally beginning to decrease.

According to the Washington Post, sharp declines have been noted in Texas and Virginia, two states that have lead the country in executions. For the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, executions have dropped significantly nationwide. In 1999, 98 persons were put to death. This year, 62 executions are anticipated.

The death penalty is on the hot seat. Without a doubt, our movement has made a difference -- for Napolean Beazley, John Byrd, Geraldo Valdez and Calvin Burdine. For years, cases like theirs were ignored. But now, because of our growing movement, those who have been victimized by our criminal justice system are finally beginning to get the attention they deserve.