The Death Penalty Is Frightening -- and Not Just on Halloween

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Diann Rust-Tierney Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Recently it was brought to my attention that some novelty item manufacturers make simulated electric chair executions. Life-like mannequins are strapped into realistic-looking devices which buzz and crackle as the figures convulse or scream with every "jolt." Some models include "smoke" emitting from the figures. A few videotaped examples are on the Internet - just in time for Halloween.

I understand the need to take a joke, but I'm much more scared by the real life capital punishment system, especially its history of mistaken convictions and executions. As of this week, 139 individuals have been exonerated after being sentenced to die - and some came terrifyingly close to execution.

For example, Anthony Porter of Illinois was mistakenly convicted of a double murder in 1983. Two days away from execution, his life was spared only because the court reviewed his mental competency, discovering that Porter's IQ is 51. Porter was released in February 1999 on the State Attorney's motion after another man confessed to the killings on videotape. Northwestern University journalism students investigating the case found that a witness was pressured by police to implicate Porter.

In another close brush with death, Joseph Green Brown of Florida, convicted of first-degree murder in 1974, was 13 hours away from execution. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in dropping his charges, ruled that the prosecution knowingly allowed the introduction of false testimony at trial. Ronald Floyd, a co-conspirator who claimed he had heard Brown confess to the murder, later retracted his testimony and admitted he had lied.

Cameron Todd Willingham, the focus of NCADP's "Shouting from the Rooftops" campaign, should have been exonerated. In 2004, fire scientist Gerald Hurst reviewed the forensic evidence used to convict Willingham for the supposed arson fire that destroyed Willingham's house and killed his three children 13 years earlier.

Concluding that the evidence was worthless and the fire was accidental, not arson, Dr. Hurst rushed his report to authorities in a failed attempt to prevent Willingham's execution. Willingham was put to death on February 17, 2004, at 6 p.m., only 88 minutes after Texas Governor Rick Perry received the report on whether Willingham should be granted clemency. It isn't known whether Perry read Dr. Hurst's findings.

Five years later, nationally renowned fire-science expert Craig Beyler released a report, commissioned by the State of Texas, that reached the same conclusion. He noted that the "science" used to convict Willingham of murder by arson was more characteristic of "mystics or psychics." But local authorities continue to defend their decision to prosecute and convict Willingham, and Perry stands by the decision to execute him.

Any one of us could be days, hours, minutes, seconds away from wrongful conviction and execution - victims of mistaken identity by an eyewitness, prosecutorial or police misconduct, false testimony or ineffective legal defense.

This is no simulated Halloween horror. Unlike those fake electric-chair novelties, real people get hurt. It's time to abolish the death penalty.