One of the many disturbing aspects of capital punishment is that it has no guarantee against mistaken convictions and executions. This risk of mistakes was driven home again on May 12th, just days ago, when a Tennessee District Attorney dropped all charges against former death row inmate Paul House, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1986.
House spent 22 years on death row and was scheduled to be retried next month. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court, because he had raised a colorable claim of innocence, granted House the opportunity to challenge the legality of his conviction and death sentence on other grounds. That ruling merely gave him the opportunity to have a federal court decide whether he should be given a hearing on the question of a new trial. A federal court ultimately did determine that House was entitled to a new trial. House was released from prison in July 2008 pending his new trial. And DNA testing has excluded House as the murderer. Now that the District Attorney has dropped all charges against Paul House, he is the second exoneree this year, and the 132nd individual to be exonerated from death row since 1973.
The exoneration of Paul House ironically came on the 16th anniversary of the execution of Leonel Herrera, a Texas man, who was sentenced to death for the shooting deaths of two police officers. Herrera like, Paul House, had insisted he was innocent; affidavits indicated that his brother actually committed the crime. Herrera asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that existing procedural barriers not deny him the opportunity for a court to hear his strong claim of innocence but the Court ruled against him.
In his dissenting opinion in Herrera v. Collins, Justice Harry Blackmun said, in part, "Just as an execution without adequate safeguards is unacceptable, so too is an execution when the condemned prisoner can prove that he is innocent. The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder."
If the nuanced distinction between why the legal system would provide an avenue for one prisoner to prove his innocence and spare his life where no such route existed for the other is lost on you, you are not alone. To make Justice Blackmun's point more bluntly, fidelity to the rule of law demands that strong claims of innocence not be denied a fair hearing -- especially when the punishment is death.
Now comes the case of Troy Anthony Davis, where the high court will again be presented with a strong claim of innocence. Troy Anthony Davis was sentenced to death in Georgia in 1991 for the murder of police officer Mark Allen MacPhail- a crime for which there is no physical evidence linking him to the shooting, in which seven of nine witnesses who named him as the killer have since recanted their testimony, saying in sworn affidavits that they were coerced or pressured into implicating Davis, and for which no murder weapon has been produced.
Davis, like House and Herrera, has been fighting for years for a new trial through which to prove his innocence. Last month the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that effort, saying that the affidavits from the witnesses who recanted were introduced "too late" in the process. In her dissenting opinion, Circuit Court Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote, "To execute Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional."
If there is any lesson that should be learned from these cases it is that our capital punishment system has some serious flaws. Not the least of which is a sufficiently adequate process for assuring that no innocent man or women is executed. The route to safety is too obscured by technicalities.
The Troy Anthony Davis case presents another test for the system. We must be as determined as the lawyers and other advocates who worked tirelessly to save the life of Paul House to prevent the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. While it should not be true -- it is -- it will take an extraordinary effort to prevent a miscarriage of justice here.
The Paul House case is a chilling reminder of just how often the system makes mistakes.
It should strengthen our resolve in the Davis case.
(A Global Day of Action in support of Davis has been organized by Amnesty International USA for May 19th. For more information on scheduled events of that day, and what can be done to obtain clemency for Davis, visit http://www.aiusa.org./troydavis.)
Follow Diann Rust-Tierney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/diannatncadp