If the government takes a person's freedom away, locks him up,
condemns him to death and then DNA analysis proves him innocent,
what does the government owe that person? How can society repay
stolen years? Restore a ruined reputation? Or heal a scarred soul?
DNA testing can free some of the falsely convicted, but it can't
give them back their lives.
A recent gathering at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern
University in Chicago makes the point. The center investigates
and litigates cases of mistaken convictions, including those of
nine innocent men sentenced to death in Illinois who were freed.
One of them was Darby Tillis, who describes the horror of spending
10 years condemned to die for a murder he didn't commit. "It
was no joke," says Tillis. "I was not there to use up
taxpayer money. I was there to die!"
Tillis was convicted of the murder of a hot dog vendor on the
north side of Chicago. A witness implicated him, but it was later
revealed she was protecting her boyfriend, the real murderer.
Tillis, 60 years old, was released in 1987, but he says after
a decade in prison he still suffers from debilitating mood-swings.
"I'm very sick," he says.
In a classroom over-looking Lake Michigan, about 30 law students
gather to hear Tillis and six other men who were sentenced, most
of them to death, for crimes they didn't commit. Leading the discussion
is Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center, who says society
typically does little or nothing to compensate people who have
been wrongly convicted. "We've really established barriers,"
he says, "to treat these victims fairly."
A case in point on this evening is Ronald Jones, who was sentenced
to death for the rape and murder of a young Chicago woman in 1985.
He was convicted on the basis of a confession that he says was
beaten out of him by Chicago police. Years later, after a DNA
test proved he was not the source of the semen recovered from
the victim, he was exonerated and released from prison. Prosecutors
abandoned the case, but Jones says the message he gets form the
justice system is that he did the crime, even if "DNA said
I didn't do it." Jones says, "the blessing of DNA"
unlocked the prison, but it didn't give him back his life.
Fourteen states provide some sort of compensation to the wrongfully
convicted, including Illinois. But they must apply for a pardon
based on actual innocence, as opposed to a lack of evidence of
guilt. Consider the case of Kenneth Adams, who spent 18 years
in jail for rape and murder until a DNA-test freed him. It took
another year to get a pardon. "I kind of resented that,"
says Jones, "because it didn't seem right that we had to
request a pardon to receive any compensation." Adams believes
that the state should at least provide those it locks up in error
with some sort of counseling when they are released. Referring
to his own case, Adams said prison took away "18 years of
life" and left him with "18 years of prison memories
"How can you assume," he asks, "that a man does
18 years in prison, then gets out and [that] everything's alright?"
Adams is one of the so-called "Ford Heights Four," who
eventually shared in a $36 million settlement from a civil rights
suit. But such outcomes are rare. Of the six other men here, four
have received nothing at all. Larry Marshall, the legal director
of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, says as hard as it was
for Adams to put his life back together, and difficult as it still
is for him to continue to live with the nightmares and stress
disorders, Adams represents a good story. "That's a happy
ending," says Marshall.
And when it comes to DNA exonerations, Marshall says, it's important
to keep in mind the following: since 1989 more than a hundred
people have been released from prison because of DNA tests, 12
of them from death row. While these are just a fraction of the
nation's criminal cases, they suggest how false convictions and
other defects plague the entire criminal justice system, including
the vast majority of cases in which there is no DNA evidence available.
"We need to look at DNA as a lens into the problem of wrongful
convictions," he says. Marshall argues that DNA is showing
how problems such as eyewitness error, prosecutorial misconduct,
false confessions and poor legal council corrupt the criminal
Meanwhile, Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project in New York
says DNA has recast the debate about the death penalty. "With
the frequency of these DNA exonerations," Neufeld contends,
"people are saying, 'it's not about morals, politics or religion
- it's about the reliability of the system.'" Not surprisingly,
supporters of the death penalty, such as Dudley Scott with the
Texas-based group, Justice for All, have a different perspective.
Scott says DNA testing has made the death penalty and all criminal
sanctions less prone to error and "safer." Scott argues
if the states want to protect the innocent through criminal justice
reform, they should look to toughening post-conviction parole
and appeals, which he says are "very likely responsible for
the murders of 100,000 innocent people since 1973." Scott
says "reason and logic" would suggest that the states
have probably executed innocent people. But on the other hand,
he says, knowing that murderers live and harm again, many more
people would be put at risk if capital punishment were to be abolished.
The likelihood that the innocent are being executed was enough
to compel Illinois Governor George Ryan, a onetime supporter of
the death penalty to suspend executions two years ago. Simple
arithmetic convinced him the system was broken: of 25 people put
on death row in Illinois since 1987, 12 were executed, 13 were
falsely accused and eventually freed, including Anthony Porter,
a retarded man who came within a few days of execution for a murder
he didn't commit. So Ryan halted a system he says was like flipping
a coin. "It's a system that either works or it doesn't,"
says Ryan. "And if it doesn't, then we shouldn't have it.
It was largely the work of the Center on Wrongful Convictions
that made a convert of Ryan, and led to a sweeping study of the
death penalty in Illinois. Ryan's commission proposed 85 ways
to prevent executions of the innocent, including the establishment
of a statewide DNA database. Other recommendations include requiring
police to videotape interrogations to discourage coerced confessions;
a ban on executing the mentally retarded and those convicted on
the basis of a single eye witness or a prison informer. Ryan's
commission said without major reform the capital punishment system
cannot be trusted. For his part, Ryan says more people need to
understand how the death penalty works, or doesn't work. "I
think a lot of people are like I was and feel the death penalty
works and works well," he says. "I didn't realize it
until I was the guy that had to throw the switch."
Perhaps the last word should come from the case of Earl Washington,
where this documentary project began. But the reality is that
in spite stories like these, the majority of Americans still believes
in the death penalty. Washington spent 18 years jailed in Virginia
for murder until DNA exonerated him. Kenneth Stolle, a State Senator
from Virginia Beach, where Earl Washington now lives, concedes
the investigation that led to Washington's conviction was flawed,
and his pardon justified. But he says the same can be said of
the death penalty: it's flawed, but justified. He says the question
for people to consider is, does the benefit of the death penalty
outweigh the possibility that we may be putting an innocent man
to death? "And right now," says Stolle, "the vast
majority of the public that I represent feel that the death penalty
is a necessary evil."
That may be a fitting last word because in the end it reflects
how most Americans feel. Over the last five years, the advent
of DNA testing and a procession of high profile exonerations have
weakened overall support for capital punishment. But according
to national surveys, about two thirds of Americans still support
it, even as the vast majority now understand the system is imperfect,
or according to some, fatally flawed.
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